It’s probably fair to criticize me for not writing more about Kansas City.
Although I have spent most of the last two years traveling and eating around the world, Kansas City is still the city I call home. And it remains, as I wrote earlier this year in a fairly comprehensive post about it, my most frequent destination.
Despite all that it has to offer, Kansas City is still best-known for its barbecue. When Anthony Bourdain came late last year to film an episode of No Reservations, he wanted barbecue. When I was at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi last week (this year’s symposium’s theme was barbecue), nearly half the speakers referred to Kansas City’s institutions of smoke, Arthur Bryant’s and Gates.
But Kansas City’s restaurant scene is much broader than barbecue. We have ethnic restaurants, and fine-dining restaurants. We have hipster bars and food trucks. We have farmers’ markets and artisanal bread and cheese-makers, and local breweries too.
Like many cities around the United States, Kansas City’s restaurant scene stagnated for a couple of years due to the depressed economy. And so, I remained largely silent about it.
But in the past year, Kansas City saw a number of openings, including Haus (a beer and sausage eatery), Local Pig (Kansas City’s first charcuterier), Gram & Dun (an “American gastropub”), Affäre (modern German small plates), The Boot Ristorante (Italian), Remedy Food + Drink, and The Jacobson.
The most exciting, and in many ways the most important opening, however, has been Port Fonda.
Last year, Patrick Ryan, the chef and co-owner, parked a shiny, chrome Airstream trailer on the corner of 20th and Main Streets in downtown Kansas City. It was only open two nights a week (Fridays and Saturdays), and the Mexican-inspired menu was short and simple: two or three tacos, an ahogada sandwich, and chilaquiles. He set up speakers, blasted eighties hip-hop, and called it Port Fonda.
The crowds came, and they did not leave.
Then, Ryan opened the “dining room” table inside the trailer for a set price menu. It accommodated six at each turn, two seatings per night. Guests at “El Comedor,” as he called it, were served a whole pork butt, glazed and molten, with countless condiments and endless tortillas. Within weeks of its opening, it became the hardest table in the city to get.
Came winter of 2011 and Ryan closed Port Fonda for the season. I think he had intended to reopen it in the spring of this year.
But between those months, every food truck owner’s fairytale dream came true for Ryan. Investors approached him, and by early summer, Port Fonda went brick-and-mortar.*
I have eaten at the new Port Fonda, located in Kansas City’s alternative bar district, Westport, about a half-dozen times since it opened.
The menu has expanded to include salads, hot cazuela dishes, and desserts, in addition to more tacos and more sandwiches.
The food is good. Some of it, like the fried oyster tacos with hot sauce mayonnaise and the lengua (tongue) tacos with Boulevard beer creamed hominy, is great.
But, I’ll tell you what I like most about Port Fonda, and the main reason why I am telling you about it here: Port Fonda has injected a much-needed shot of energy into Kansas City’s dining culture. It offers everything a modern, community-conscious restaurant should: the interior design, the server outfits (Baldwin), and many of the ingredients are locally sourced. It has become a gathering place for a wide spectrum of Kansas Citians; mostly hipsters, but also yuppies, athletes (Chiefs and Sporting Kansas City players are regularly spotted at the restaurant), and business folk too. With a great playlist (the volume lowered after initial complaints of deafening decibels), a hopping bar scene, and a fairly solid menu with fairly reasonable prices, Port Fonda has made eating out fun for Kansas City diners, mobilizing them on those Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, when our city’s restaurants are either closed, or stall for business.
For Kansas City, this is important.
I’ve already told you about two of my favorite tacos at Port Fonda. But let me share some thoughts about the other items on the menu.
Having been to Mexico five times in the past year, I have sampled a wide variety of authentic, Mexican cuisine, from the moles of Puebla and Oaxaca (I even brought some back for Ryan to taste), to the grilled meats of the northern mountains, to the tacos al pastor of Mexico City, and the fried fish tacos of the Baja coast along the Pacific Ocean. In a short amount of time, I have learned quickly, but by no means completely, about Mexican cookery and its flavors.
To expect to find them at Port Fonda would be foolish. Patrick Ryan is not a Mexican cook, and he does not claim to cook authentic Mexican food. What he does offer are many dishes based on Mexican ones – some more faithful to the original than others – in addition to clearly bastardized ones, like the pig tails going for the hot wings effect. They are saucy, and spicy, and, if you are patient enough to pick the meat from the fat, they are delicious. But I wish they served the tail on a plate, instead of coiled up in a bowl, which makes it practically inaccessible.
When the food at Port Fonda is good, it is very good. I’ve had a piping hot cazuela of octopus in a spicy, tomatoey sauce, smokey with chipotle; and one with pork belly in salsa negra – a hint of leather and earth – with Rancho Gordo beans and queso añejo. Both were great, sopped up with warm, corn tortillas that are made daily by a tortilleria in Kansas City.
The cemita at Port Fonda wasn’t anything like the overstuffed ones I’ve had in San Pedro Cholula, minty with papalo and piled high with stringy quesilla. The one at Port Fonda was closer to a Midwestern pork tenderloin sandwich, more meat than condiments, which included mayonnaise and achiote mustard. But it was a fine sandwich nonetheless.
I’ve order the chilaquiles almost every time I’ve eaten at Port Fonda, even though they’re a little more wet than I like them. The tortilla chips are coated in a tangy and spicy salsa molcajete and ground chorizo verde. I squeeze lime all over it to counteract the saltiness, and slice open the fried egg on top to let the yolk run its course. All mixed up, it’s one of the best things on the menu.
The food at Port Fonda tends to be salty. On occasion, it can be too salty, dulling that fine edge of spice and acid that Ryan is so good at balancing.
And sometimes, there are inconsistencies. The first time Ryan served me his masa cake, soaked in strawberry juice and topped with a bruléed sabayon spiked with cherry-infused tequila, it was warm, boozy, and fantastic. The second time I ordered it, the cake was cold, the fruit was cold, and the sabayon was on the verge of breaking.
But otherwise, I have more praises (among them are Christopher Elbow’s orange-infused hot chocolate and the ricotta doughnuts with mezcal tres leches, both on the dessert menu) than complaints to file with Ryan, with whom I speak on occasion. He values feedback, and I value what he is doing for Kansas City.
Port Fonda has quickly become a hot spot. It’s full nearly every night of the week, with long waits on the weekends (until recently, the restaurant did not accept reservations). And, if he stays the course, minding quality and pricing, Patrick Ryan will surely continue to enjoy the kind of unprecedented traffic his restaurant has already received. Good for him, and good for Kansas City.
4141 Pennsylvania Avenue
Kansas City, Missouri 64111
* What about that Airstream trailer? Will it ride again? To my knowledge, Ryan remains undecided. I hope it does.
Photos: Carnitas tacos; the Port Fonda Airstream trailer; the roasted pork butt at El Comedor; Port Fonda, Kansas City, Missouri; chicharrones; heirloom melon, with arugula, cotija, pickled rind, pepitas, radish, chile, chilantro/basil/mint and melon vinaigrette; and Patrick Ryan inside the Port Fonda Airstream trailer.