With his background, Michael Farha might have headed in any culinary direction. His father is Lebanese, his mother Hispanic, and Farha spent a year cooking in Italy. Fortunately for fans of Mexican food, he chose that route for his first restaurant, District Taqueria, in Old Town.
Farha and partner Marc Humsi opened the upscale taco joint earlier this year, after a longer-than-expected wait that had people already familiar with Farha’s food downright antsy for another taste. Now they can get it, washed down by a nice selection of tequilas, Mexican beers and more.
“It’s unique, for Wichita, but it’s still tacos,” Farha said. “It’s still approachable.”
Inside, the wait seems to have been worth it. With a few changes, the former home of several bars has been transformed into a hip-looking restaurant, though the partners may wish they had a few more seats on busy days.
Humsi, a former New Yorker who is Farha’s cousin, handles the front of the house, while Farha is in charge of the kitchen.
In an interview one afternoon last month, Farha said he considered attending culinary school after high school, but went to Wichita State University instead to study for a liberal arts degree. While there, he started using his fraternity’s kitchen to cater parties and other events. That evolved into a catering business called The Food Group, a stint cooking at YaYa’s and then a year in Tuscany, working for a restaurant that rated a Michelin star.
When Farha returned home, he started looking around for a restaurant concept that would work on Douglas Avenue, downtown’s main drag. “I always wanted to be on Douglas,” he said. He liked what he saw in some big city restaurants that called themselves taquerias but that were quite different from the traditional version.
A taqueria is simply a place that sells tacos. In Hispanic neighborhoods, including those in north Wichita, they are usually modest, family-run operations.
Farha has been to more than a few. “On weekends, we’d always end up on north Broadway,” he said.
District Taqueria sells tacos inspired by those small taquerias, but with a few imaginative touches of its own. For instance, tacos topped with carnitas—the classic slow-simmered pork filling—come accompanied by a cactus-green chile salsa, while achiote chicken gets a pineapple-habanero salsa.
“I don’t like to use the word gourmet, but they’re ‘elevated’ tacos,” Farha said.
The achiote chicken, he adds, is modeled on that sold by a food truck in north Wichita. The recipe for another taco filling, red mole pulled chicken, was passed down through his mother’s family. District Taqueria sells fried and grilled fish tacos, steak and braised beef tacos, and even beef tongue tacos, a nod to traditional taqueria fare. Also on the menu are cemitas, a type of oversized sandwich Farha encountered during a visit to central Mexico; grilled street corn; and tres leches, the Mexican cake made with three types of milk.
Farha pays tribute to traditional taquerias in another way, by using white corn tortillas made by La Tradicion, a north Wichita tortilleria. The chicken sausage in his tortilla soup comes from the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop a few doors down the street. Shortly after the interview started, he jumped up to accept delivery of another local product, a small box of micro radish greens.
Farha also shies away from another word— “authentic”—when describing his Mexican food, although it will fool many dedicated fans of that genre. What he will say is: “We’re kind of inspired by authenticity.”
917 E. Douglas