That man over there keeps looking at you," my friend Martha whispered. "Do you know him?"
What man? Where? We were sitting in the charmless dining room of a suburban restaurant. The lighting was bad, the better to disguise the unappealing furniture. I didn't recognize anyone in the room, and that was fine with me. But Martha persisted. "That man," she said, nodding toward a tall man holding a tray.
He stepped over to our table. "You don't remember me, do you?" he asked me.
When someone asks you this question, the answer should always be no. Most of the people who preface a conversation this way are debt collectors or assassins or — worst of all — distant relatives.
But I really didn't remember Jose Garcia, owner of the two-year-old El Portón Café. I do, though, fondly recall his previous restaurant, the old Café Venezuela — a 13-stool diner in Kansas City, Kansas, which he operated nearly a decade ago. Many of the same South American dishes that he served in that tiny venue are now on the menu at El Portón Café, a space that housed a traditional Mexican restaurant before Garcia took over the lease in 2010.
It was Garcia's Café Venezuela that introduced me to Chilean empañadas: crispy pastries filled with beef, raisins and hard-boiled eggs. Garcia has discovered that his Johnson County patrons prefer a more traditional empañada, filled only with seasoned beef or shredded stewed chicken. "They don't like the raisins and egg," he says.
That reluctance to embrace authenticity is one reason that El Portón has been slow to find a customer base. But people have begun to figure out that this is a Central and South American restaurant, not a neighborhood joint serving up bean burritos or tacos. "People don't come in asking if we're a Mexican restaurant anymore," Garcia says. "Our regulars know what we're trying to do."
That mission: Seduce customers with savory dishes from Peru, Guatemala, Chile and Venezuela (and even Cuba and Puerto Rico) in a tidy little restaurant where the most potent beverage is fresh passion-fruit juice, served in red-plastic tumblers. ("We're trying to get a liquor license," Garcia says, "but it's taking longer than we thought.") Garcia's outgoing personality helps. He's not only the owner and the cook but also an articulate advocate for the distinctive cuisine he's serving. That's good, because his signature dishes — stuffed plaintains, corn-flour arepa sandwiches, platters of black beans and white rice — are unlike any other South American-influenced meals served in the metro.
Garcia's explanations of his dishes are passionate and alluring. I'd tasted the spicy beef concoction known as picadillo before but never heard it described with such wild abandon. The night I ordered it, Garcia delivered a poetic monologue, naming every sultry spice and piquant pepper. I wasn't sure whether I was expected to eat it or bathe in it.
This is, after all, a robustly sexy cuisine. The delectable bollitos, fried and stuffed potato balls, look like perky breasts, and the twice-cooked plantains — sautéed and mashed, then molded and baked into tartlike pastries and filled with beef or chicken — only get more arousing with a spoonful or two of guasacaca. Garcia makes two versions of that condiment: one with chunks of avocado that's served with grilled meats and another brassier sauce that's a thick blend of peppers, onion, garlic, cilantro, oregano and white wine.
The soft white-corn cakes, arepas, are terrific for diners seeking gluten-free alternatives. They're filling enough that two easily add up to a satisfying meal, and there are meat, seafood and vegetarian options. The roasted-pork version is outrageously good, and a shredded-chicken version, with avocado, may be the classiest spin on a chicken-salad sandwich I've tried. (There's a slightly different version of this chicken mixture, served on a crusty baguette, called "the Queen.") Garcia's Cubano, a welcome holdover from Café Venezuela, is a smart version of a classic, with sumptuous, tender, slow-roasted pork (and ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and all-American yellow mustard) pressed between slices of baguette.
On one of my visits, a friend invented a salad for himself by ordering a couple of Garcia's excellent house-made crab cakes and sliding them over the fresh avocado salad, dousing the whole thing with the addictive citrus vinaigrette, a tart and sweet dressing of fresh lime and orange juices, roasted chipotle, cilantro and honey. It's a combination worth putting on the menu.
The appetizers are also superb — you haven't lived until you've dipped a hot, pastry-wrapped ham-and-cheese stick into a bowl of herb-rich chimichurri. I felt almost too full to tackle one of the generous dinner entrées, but our server persuaded me to sample one of Garcia's innovations. The dish — his version of hash — is made with roasted pork and hunks of cooked yuca root, bits of spicy chorizo, green and red peppers, and onion. Like traditional hash, it's a hearty mix of the meaty and starchy that's maybe better as a morning meal (with an egg) than a dinner.
That evening's fish special was a flaky fillet of mahi mahi tucked in a thick blanket of chunky sofrito cream sauce with squash, peppers, mushrooms and onions. It was visually impressive but almost overwhelmingly heavy. As in the miracle of loaves and fishes, the mahi mahi seemed to expand after each bite, so that even after everyone at the table sampled it, the portion seemed never to get smaller.
The steaks include a luscious, Peruvian-inspired stir-fry of tender sirloin, sautéed with onions and peppers in a yellow hot-pepper paste called aji, which is more subtle than searing. There are spicier dishes here, though, and they demand a cooling finale. Garcia's eggy, caramel-rich flan is a winner, but the cinnamon-dusted, densely rich tres leches cake is, hands down, the showstopper. You can't enjoy a glass of port with the desserts yet, but Garcia whips up one hell of a café con leche.
It was at this deeply satisfied point in the meal that I finally asked Garcia how, after so many years, he remembered me.
"You always eat with such gusto," he said.
True! And Garcia's restaurant meets my appetite with equal verve.