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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.