Don Chilitos might have served its last bit of CCQ sauce — but that doesn’t mean its final customers had to settle for a handful of chiclets as a memento on their way out the door, Barry Cowden said, explaining his decision to go public with dozens of recipes from the beloved restaurant in a newly released book.
“We tried to include everything,” said Cowden, owner of the famed Tex-Mex destination in Mission, detailing what customers can expect from “Don Chilito’s Secret Recipes” — a 16-recipe cookbook and retrospective history guide, stuffed, wrapped (and served Chilito style) with nostalgia.
The book was released earlier this month in step with the Dec. 11 closing of the 50-year-old restaurant and Cowden’s retirement.
“Frankly, it was not a planned thing,” he said of the recipe book.
An outpouring of support from generations of customers — in response to the restaurant’s closing announcement in September — prompted him to pursue publishing the book as a thank you to Kansas City.
“People were offering to buy my chili con queso (CCQ) recipe,” he said, expressing surprise.
“So, with that, I decided, ‘Let’s make a recipe book!’ … We put a lot of thought into it and tried to produce the best book we could,” Cowden continued, noting he and his daughter, Amanda Cowden Morris, worked diligently to get the book assembled in time for the holiday shopping season.
Books are currently available through the Don Chilitos website — which Cowden said will soon receive an upgraded online marketplace — and through social media, though stock is already running low amid ongoing shortages in the U.S. supply chain, he cautioned.
Click here to purchase “Don Chilito’s Secret Recipes” or here to follow the former-restaurant on Facebook where it is expected to remain active as new merchandise rolls out.
“I could have told stories and we could have filled 100 pages with things about the restaurant [over] 50-years. We wanted to add hints and things we’ve learned that work and don’t work — we thought that was important to do and we’re proud of it and we hope the public likes it too.”
The book includes additional recipes for Spanish rice, blended taco sauce and ground beef taco meat among other Don Chilitos staples — and yes, Cowden said, the restaurant’s famous, cinnamon-sugar dusted sweet treat also made the cut.
“I wasn’t going to add it. But so many people said, ‘We’ve got to have the sopaipilla recipe!”
With such a demand in mind, Cowden spent hours in his own kitchen, figuring out how to best prepare the puffy, honey drizzled crowd pleasers on a smaller scale for home chefs.
“The first day [books were available] a lady sent us a picture and that’s what she made first. She said, ‘It must be a gift from God,’ because the picture looked exactly like what we would’ve made. It was really encouraging to see that someone could produce those, that way, in their house.”
Cowden is also well aware that putting the restaurant’s recipes on full display could inspire copycat operations, hoping to fill (and cash in on) the void left by Don Chilitos.
“God bless ‘em,” he laughed. “They can’t use my name, but if anyone wants to get into the restaurant industry in this day and age — they have my blessing. But I’m not worried about it. I don’t worry about things anymore.”
The end of never-ending
While longtime customers of Don Chilitos will likely always remember the restaurant for its free (and never-ending) supply of chips, salsa, and sopaipillas; such a business model had gone stale in the modern-day restaurant industry — though the popular menu items never had a chance to lose their freshness amid hungry crowds, Cowden explained.
“That concept — serve yourself chips and sopaipillas — doesn’t work very good in today’s market and economy,” he said, noting the restaurants cafeteria-style service was also demanding on his staff.
“It’s very labor intensive. I had to have three to five line cooks. Dishwashers, busboys, cashiers, fry cooks — it took a lot of employees to run that place. With the labor shortage, it was one of the [biggest] issues [we faced.]”
“20 or 30 years ago you could give away incentives, I.E. free chips and salsa and sopaipillas, and costs were such that you could absorb that. In today’s world, that’s not the case.”
Moving out, moving on
Wednesday marked the final day for pre-order pickups of the books at the now-empty Don Chilitos building at 7017 Johnson Drive. It also offered customers the last opportunity to catch a glimpse of the building in its historic form.
In January, The Big Biscuit is expected to begin renovating the space inside and out, the Prairie Village-based breakfast and brunch restaurant announced previously.
“We’ve had [our] auction and most everything’s gone. I kept some of the art and especially the stained glass we had commissioned in the ’70s,” Cowden said of the space and his final days in it — a place he’s spent the majority of his life, ultimately purchasing the business in 2005 from his father, Bill Cowden.
“It’s a bittersweet thing, when you’ve done something [for so long]. I now realize — more so than ever — that it wasn’t just a restaurant. It meant a lot to a lot of people and families. This is where they came for birthdays and anniversaries,” he said, noting hundreds of first dates and marriage proposals also took place at Don Chilitos over its five decades of service.
“It’s their favorite place. They’ve raised their kids here — and, many of them, grandkids. I’ve got third- and fourth-generation families of [customers]. That’s really touching and humbling and important,” Cowden continued.
“We’re just so thankful for the 50-years and to be able to do what we’ve done. It’s been a good run.”
Behind the scenes no more
A section of “Don Chilito’s Secret Recipes” hones in on the innovative contributions of the restaurant, which famously used microwave ovens to heat cheese-covered dishes before the eyes of customers waiting on the other side of the counter.
“It’s not a secret that many restaurants use them,” the book reads. “But no one else had them out in the open for the customer to see.”
As for what’s next for Cowden, the retired restaurateur is headed to the outskirts of the metro, set to build a new life as a sustainable farmer and world traveler.
Don Chilitos, however, won’t be far from his mind — and possibilities for a new era of business do indeed exist, he told Startland News.
“There is some opportunity out there to do pop-up kitchens,” Cowden said, citing Lenexa Public Market as an example of the type of place he and his family might consider creating a pop-up Don Chilitos dining experience in the future.
“I see, now that I’m getting out of this part of the restaurant business, that there is a lot of opportunity out there. So, who knows what the future holds for Don Chilitos.”