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.