Inside Chef Michael Smith’s CocoBolos

How do you make a college-town favorite into a KC success? Add Michael Smith to the mix.

Story by Kelsey Cipolla  |  Photos by David Allison

If you’ve spent time in Manhattan, Kan., chances are you’ve stopped into CoCoBolos, the lively and colorful New Mexican restaurant that’s captured the hearts and stomachs of K-State students since it opened in 1998.

Don’t expect the same experience when you step into the new CocoBolos in Prairiefire, helmed by Michael Smith.

“I can’t just go in and make somebody’s recipes,” Smith explains. “I need to develop food that’s coming from my heart, my gut, my passion and inspiration, and put it in the menu.”

A longtime lover of the cuisine, Michael Smith had always toyed with the idea of opening a Latin American restaurant but expected it to take the form of a taqueoría until he was approached about putting his spin on CoCoBolos by Prariefire’s developers.

He did just that with dishes such as Peruvian causa, a potato salad topped with avocado and crab, shrimp and quinoa croquettes, a lineup of tasty tacos, smoky fall-off-the-bone-tender ribs and pork chili verde (just to name a few favorites in the making).

The concept gets an update for Kansas Citians’ refined palates thanks to the chef’s love for Latin American cuisine developed during a childhood full of Tex-Mex in Texas and Oklahoma, but fans of the original restaurant will also leave happy—the reimagined CocoBolos pays homage to classic dishes like the Tijuana Trainwreck, which features baked layers of corn tortillas, machaca chicken, chile verde, chile con carne, beans, Monterey jack and roasted corn topped with sour cream.

Nancy Smith says they felt it was important to give diners familiar with the Manhattan spot a chance to indulge in their favorite dishes or try something completely new.

Also important to the team, which includes Rye and Aixois alum Andrew Niemeyer as general manager, is using fresh, sustainable ingredients and materials.

Left: Michael Smith’s re-imagined menu features authentic dishes, including corn tortilla tacos. Right: CocoBolos’ indoor-outdoor bar offers a prime view of the new spots opening at Prairiefire while serving up responsibly sourced tequila, but the green-minded restaurant is also kid-friendly and features a menu just for young diners.

“We’re trying to be green in everything we’re doing, from our napkins in the restaurant to our tequila on tap,” she says.

The space incorporates wood reclaimed from a local barn as well as reused tin, but the aesthetic is anything but old hat, thanks to fiery red and bold orange walls and a mural created by local artist Scribe, whose lighthearted, large-scale works are on display throughout Prairiefire.

CocoBolos is the most casual and family-friendly venture Smith’s undertaken, not to mention the first time he’s opening a restaurant based on an existing concept, but it’s a move he’s willing to bet on.

“There’s always a risk when you take a concept that’s tried and true and maybe you’re modernizing it a little bit,” Smith says. “I cook food that I want to eat, and I hope to hell that people want to eat that food too.”

The bright space boasts an equally colorful patio.