It's exhilarating to be in a new restaurant when it's in the full flush of its opening hype. When a place opens with sizzle — great word of mouth, full stations from opening to close, people not just sitting or standing around the bar but crammed around it like Katy Perry fans waiting for an autograph — it gives off palpable electricity. When you're on staff, it's like being in the cast of a hit play. When you're a customer, it's like having front-row seats on opening night of that hit play. And when you're behind the scenes, you feel the thrill but wonder how long that heightened, addictive energy can last.
Port Fonda, the two-month-old Mexican restaurant created by chef Patrick Ryan, has momentum and talent, and it's the first Kansas City restaurant in years to live up to its pre-opening hype — and the hype was considerable. I heard an awful lot about it before I stepped into the L-shaped storefront dining room. The street reviews reported a noisy room, and that's accurate. I'd heard that the room would be loaded with tattooed hipsters, but that mostly describes the people working there. The food isn't conventional Tex-Mex, people said. That's true. If you're looking for a taco-and-enchilada combo plate, this is the last place to go.
But is it really impossible to get a table? Kind of. Port Fonda does take reservations, but only before 6 p.m. and after 9 p.m. During peak dinner hours, you're on your own. And this joint, which seats just 75 people, starts jumping early.
Some friends of mine told me that they'd waited as long as an hour for a table. I heeded their advice to arrive early and was rewarded for it by being eligible, on two of my three visits, for one of the tables on the perimeter of the room — prime people-watching real estate. Given that Ryan is, by local standards, a larger-than-life culinary figure already, I figured I'd see acolytes and aspiring chefs dining here, and I wasn't disappointed. Well, I'm at least sure that I saw a line cook from a far less trendy restaurant, but it counts because he looks like someone who would have no trouble being cast on The Young and the Restless.
The tables at the center bear the decibel load of this room, a landscape of hard surfaces. The night I sat at one of them was also the night I dined with a slightly hearing-impaired friend. After some initial awkwardness, we figured out the right, forceful angle to lean into the table and have a more or less misunderstanding-free conversation.
Mostly we discussed the food. That's what you talk about at Port Fonda, where Ryan serves a collection of dishes designed to spark conversation. It's not an elaborate list: soups, salads, tortas, tacos, cazuelitas (say caz-way-litas). Ryan recently replaced the half-dozen fajitas on the debut menu because that dish turned out to lack the core quality he seeks: uniqueness. Instead, he has put together a few puck-sized terra-cotta dishes, baked in a wood-fired oven, which can be spooned into a soft corn tortilla or just eaten straight. (Ryan uses different fruitwoods that impart sweet, smoky notes to the bubbling dishes.) A meatless version, with roasted corn fungus, wild mushrooms and goat cheese, steams out black and mushy but tastes bright, with well-defined flavors. It's an exceptional vegetarian satisfaction and a rewarding adventure for a meat eater, especially with a side of the esquite asado — a jumble of grilled sweet corn, epazote, cotija cheese, chile and lime juice. Mix a bit of each on a warm tortilla and you taste heaven.
The panza, a hunk of singularly tender pork belly slathered in salsa negra (brown sugar, vinegar, molasses and dried chipotles blended into a mahogany condiment that tastes like the world's most elegant barbecue sauce), with beans, pickled tomatillo and queso añejo, is a cazuelita that can be shared as a starter or combined with other small plates to make a meal. I wasn't as easily seduced by the camarones en pipian, a dish of fat prawns seeming to lurch, almost threateningly, out of a blanket of tasty but grainy-looking green peanut mole. Of course, I had already sated myself with Ryan's light and fresh guacamole and an alarming majority of my table's frito mixto. The latter is a little galvanized-metal bucket of tempura-fried vegetables given slow-burn zing with a high-rent hot-sauce mayo.
There are three kinds of tacos here, including two callbacks to Ryan's days operating the only four-star food truck in the history of Kansas City. One holds pork-shoulder meat and grilled pineapple, and it's very good. The other, though, is sensational: beef tongue, brined for five days and braised until the meat is indescribably tender.
Assuming you don't simply go haywire filling up tortillas with various meat or seafood choices, there are also outstanding tortas to share. Assuming you're willing to share. In this case, I wasn't — too damn bad. One of the tortas is the very best — and I mean hands down — fried pork tenderloin sandwich in the metro. The Milanesa de puerco is (deep breath) supple slices of Duroc pork dusted in masa, dipped in tempura, fried until the exterior is exquisitely crunchy, and served on an egg bun with achiote mustard and spicy escabeche mayonnaise. It only barely tops Ryan's version of a meatball sandwich (albondigas divorciadas), which heaps small, flash-fried orbs of pork, slow-simmered in either a tomatilla-based sauce or a tomato-chipotle sauce, with ricotta and cotija cheese, then covers the lot of it with salsa verde and queso fresco.
Ryan uses his palette of spices and chiles with the confidence of Diego Rivera painting a mural. In his deftly seasoned sauces and across the spectrum of his meats, the combinations of sweet, sour, fiery and salty are often intoxicating. Yet he never overwhelms a dish, an artful restraint most evident in a superb fresh melon salad that's even better after dinner than before. Here Ryan mixes slightly bitter arugula with chunks of sweet and ripe heirloom melon, crispy radish straws, crunchy pumpkin seeds, salty cotija cheese, and bits of freshly chopped basil and mint and cilantro. The flavors unite within a delicately sweet melon vinaigrette, a combination so refreshing that I ordered it for dessert the second time I ate it — and I needed nothing more.
On the subject of dessert, Ryan has recently brought back the ricotta doughnuts that he used to serve in his food truck — a smart move. But the roasted-peanut semifreddo that I sampled one night, draped in a silky sheep's-milk caramel, was perfect with a cup of strong Oddly Correct coffee. And a Spanish-influenced variation on an Italian dessert that Ryan used to make in a different restaurant scores high as well: a sweet masa cake covered with a handful of fresh berries and then topped with a soothing, custardy sabayon made with tequila instead of marsala wine. The baked cake, topped this way, is briefly set under a hot broiler so the pudding puffs up like a little cloud.
Ryan isn't serving lunch at Port Fonda, but he introduced Sunday brunch last week, a neat little menu of dinner choices fashioned for an earlier hour. That fresh melon salad is there, as well as a steaming bowl of menudo. Exclusive to brunch is a vegetarian pozole, and huevos rancheros with Mexican sausage rendered for Ryan by the Local Pig's Alex Pope.
If the brunch business is anything like the dinner crowd, you'll need to rise early. Or you can camp outside the building and wait until the sun comes up. After all, when a restaurant becomes the next big thing, you can't let the parade — or the panza — pass you by.