The bearded, bespectacled chef feverishly worked the cramped kitchen inside Port Fonda, his modded Airstream trailer that started rolling in 2011. He came back to Kansas City to open a restaurant. First, he needed to make sure that Kansas City was hungry for his take on nuevo-Latino cuisine. The line that stretched each weekend from the gleaming mobile kitchen's order window, in the parking lot of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, answered that question.
"The truck was a real jumping-off point, personally and professionally," Ryan says. "It was when the dream of opening and owning a restaurant seemed really far off. But I still had all these cool ideas between my own ears I wanted to see come to fruition."
KC's food-truck movement is maturing, providing seed capital and daily market research for budding independent restaurateurs. Only a month after Lindsay Laricks opened Little Freshie on the West Side (an espresso and soda bar across the street from the park where her Shasta teardrop trailer sold snow cones in the summer), Ryan is set to unveil a brick-and-mortar version of Port Fonda. His restaurant in Westport is slated to open Tuesday, June 26.
"We survived an entire season cooking the food we wanted to cook," Ryan says. "We never had to make sacrifices, never had to make a ground-beef taco. We tried to do new things, and that worked out really well."
The top sellers on the truck provide the foundation for the starters: chilaquiles; grilled corn; and a selection of street tacos, tortas and cemitas (Mexican sandwiches), served with chicharron (fried pork rinds) or beans and rice. The menu divides its entrées into fajitas, sopas (soups) and caldos (stews). The fajitas are based on recipes hammered out in the trailer, with meat stewed and braised rather than grilled and sliced. The pork belly and beef tongue (Ryan always wants offal available) and chicken confit come with a coterie of toppings: grilled green onions, roasted radishes, homemade crema, guacamole and various salsas.
But it's the chance to return to his culinary roots - Ryan spent five years making 5-gallon batches of mole and soups at Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill and Topolobampo - that has the chef eager to open Port Fonda.
"I'm most excited about the soups and stews," he says. "A lot of my friends go to the Vietnam Café for a big pot of pho. It's really satisfying. So I tried to take that idea of having something with all of these textures and flavors but putting a Mexican spin on it." The results include his version of arroz con pollo, with a spicy chicken broth and chicken confit and a fried egg, or goat stew with guajillo mole.
Counteracting the heat is Travis Stewart's scratch bar. Stewart, formerly of Manifesto and Chaz on the Plaza, is designing and pouring cocktails at Port Fonda. Ryan asked him to focus on tequila and mezcal - and equipped him with 16 craft tequilas behind the bar.
"This is the type of stuff I know how to do," Ryan says. "It's not quite as Americanized. You have your high-end places, like Zócalo or Mestizo, and I didn't think I would fit in owning a little place on the Boulevard. This is something right in the middle, something new, cool and local that is meant to be really fun."
Though you'll be able to order tacos here, the restaurant is very different from the taqueria envisioned by the late chef John McClure, who died last October. The former owner of Starker's had planned to partner with Dan Doty in a restaurant called Barrio. Doty and Ryan initially worked together on the new concept but parted ways during the building stages.
"This is a drastically different restaurant than what Barrio would have been," Ryan says. "It's a difficult situation. I do think John [McClure] would have liked this place. But I had to do what was best for me and execute my vision. Otherwise, I don't think I could be successful."
The space, designed by John Anderson of the Utilitarian Workshop (who also worked on Little Freshie's look), is a warm mix of wood, industrial lighting and decorations centered on a desert motif. "I want this to be something new and totally different for Kansas City," Ryan says. "And in order for it to hold its own as one of the better places in KC, I've taken seriously all the elements of food and design and service."
For now, he's keeping the Airstream shuttered to focus on the restaurant. But he says he'd like to park it in the adjacent alley and sell street tacos. He cites Aaron Confessori and Richard Wiles' Westport Street Fare, in the courtyard next to Harry's Bar and Tables, as an example of how that model might work.
Port Fonda is starting with identical lunch and dinner menus Tuesday through Sunday. Within a month, Ryan intends to add Saturday and Sunday brunch, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
"I want to be ready for it," he says. "There's so much buzz on this place that once we open the doors and make the decision to charge full price, people will expect a full experience. And we want to deliver on it."