Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Little Airstream That Could (and Did) - Port Fonda

This is the only photo of mine I could find
of the original Airstream-based Port Fonda. 
I've only been at this blogging thing for about five months but already I feel like I'm neglecting some of my very favorite places to eat and drink in Kansas City. Fitting squarely in that category is Port Fonda - a not-your-abuelo's Mexican joint that would be a good fit in any major urban center (thankfully it's in mine). Much good has been written about this Westport gem and I'm not better than The Star, The Pitch, Bonjwing Lee's Ulterior Epicure or The New York Times so you can read their reviews by following those links. I'll spend my time talking about why I love this place and why I think some misguided souls don't get it.

Like many lucky Kansas Citians I discovered Port Fonda several years ago when it was based out of an Airstream that parked in a few strategic locations around the city. My favorite spot was the parking lot at the Rieger Hotel & Exchange for the simple reason that Airstream Port Fonda didn't serve alcohol and some of the best drinks in town can be found at both The Rieger and Manifesto (same building, in the basement). Outrageously good street tacos in the parking lot followed by a drink or three at one or both of these places and it's a good evening.


This place got a cult following and fast. Everyone I knew was talking (and tweeting, and posting...) about it. Hipster for sure, but even us 40-somethings were getting in on it. Not sure if it was feeling around in the dark or sheer business genius but owner/chef Patrick Ryan sure looked smart - starting a restaurant in a low-cost RV, building a loyal clientele and healthy social media following to boot. All that must have been helpful when it came time to finance a permanent brick and mortar establishment.

Chef/Owner Patrick Ryan in the kitchen.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012 when Ryan and business partner Jamie Davila opened the doors of the very new, very cool, very grounded Port Fonda in Westport. Now, Kansas City has it's share of Mexican food restaurants, joints, trucks, etc... Some are quite good and Kansas Citians have developed their own personal short-list of favorites. Port Fonda is so different from any of them however, it's not fair to compare. There is a perpetual festive (not fiesta) atmosphere here that, even though it is very much a restaurant first, makes the whole place feels like a really fun bar. Servers are in constant motion, Ryan and Davila are often greeting guests with handshakes and hugs, decent rock playlists roll, while diners buzz about how good the food is.

Esquite Asado grilled sweet corn, epazote, cotija,
habañero mayonnaise, chile, and lime.
About the food... Don't expect giant burritos surrounded by heaps of refried beans and rice. Nor should you expect truly authentic Mexican - you know, like Mexicans eat in Mexico. What is offered here, and it's a very good offering, is Patrick Ryan's riff on Mexican food or what he calls "creative expressions of rustic Mexican cuisine". This is a very talented chef that knows how to play with spices and textures. Ingredients are fresh and fun, with meats sourced from some of my favorite local butchers like Local Pig. I've probably been here more than a dozen times in the last ten months and it's a rare occasion that I'm less than thrilled with the food. I've sampled a lot and nearly always start with Esquite Asado (grilled sweet corn, epazote, cotija, habañero mayonnaise, chile, and lime). It's served with chips. Ask for tortillas too. This stuff is meant to be rolled.

Port Fonda Hamburger with Farm-to-Market Concha
(Mexican style sweet bread), fried egg and pork belly.
A recent nice surprise was Port Fonda's hamburger. This is a visually shocking burger as it is served on Ryan's version of a Mexican sweet bread known as Concha (custom baked for Port Fonda by Kansas City's Farm to Market Bread Company). The shocking part is the randomly red or green sugar that the concha is dusted with. Looks are deceiving. It's not too sweet and provides a nice balance to the hearty burger, spicy mayo, and fried egg. Have them add some pork belly and life will be grand. By the way, this burger is big enough to share.

Avocado lovers (me) and vegetarians (not me) will fall in love with the Tacos de Aguacate - (fried avocado,‍ salsa blanca, cabbage, radish, cilantro, onion, lime). I've had this twice and both times the avocados were perfectly ripe and simply delicious in this preparation.

My only real disappointment has been the Tacos de Camarones - (tomatillo and cumin braised shrimp, bibb lettuce, crema, lime). All I remember about this particular dish was that the shrimp were really small.

I am begging for a return to the menu of the Tacos Ostiones - (fried oyster, hot sauce mayonnaise, avocado, radish, cucumber, cabbage, cilantro, onion, lime). I'm a Maryland guy and have a pretty high standard when it comes to oysters. These things were flat out great and I miss them dearly.

There are naysayers. More than a few judging by some of my friends and acquaintances. Here are the common complaints and my take on them:
  1. The food isn't as good as __________ (fill in name of favorite Mexican restaurant).
    As mentioned above, that's probably not a fair comparison. Port Fonda is not trying to be like your favorite Mexican restaurant.
  2. It's too expensive.
    Everything's relative. A couple on a budget can get out of here for about $30. That's an appetizer, two taco plates, and a pair of beers. You can spend much more. Cocktails run on the slightly high side for KC ($10-ish) but are worth it.
  3. It's too loud.
    OK, it can get loud. On weekend nights there is an arms race of volume between the music and the diners. As the hours go by each tries to overcome the raised decibels of the other. Not for everyone.
  4. The menus have too much Spanish.
    Many of the menu descriptions include Spanish words that won't be common to many diners. Just ask your server what it is. 
Patrick Ryan seems to take all this in stride. After all there's no way to please everyone and even trying to please everyone means no one is happy. He summed it up well recently in the New York Times, "It’s not a place that everybody should love. It’s not a place that everybody should even like.”

Caitlin the bartender shaking it up.
Ironically, Port Fonda's bar (which of course didn't exist in the Airstream) has also set a new standard for tequila and mezcal-based cocktails in the city. I honestly think they are the best in town. There are some hard working bartenders here and when things get busy it's like watching a shake-weight commercial. The Roselle Margarita (El Ultimo Agave Blanco Tequila, solerno blood orange liqueur, hibiscus syrup) is a bright pink wonder - get a pitcher. I was partial to the now retired Farmers Market Flip (Reposado Tequila, mango, jalapeño, cilantro shrub, egg white). My wife says "nada" when asked what tequila she prefers, so she always settles for the California Gimlet (Vodka, simple syrup, cucumber, lavender, lime juice). There's a good selection of beer too. My favorite Mexican cerveza is Negra Modelo and it's on tap. Tecate Tallboy cans are popular but that's just Mexican PBR as far as I'm concerned. To each his own.

Also - Parking! Ryan has a bunch of off-street spaces available in the lot behind the restaurant. Westport regulars know how great that is.

OK, that went a little longer than expected. Closing thought: You know how you go on a trip to Chicago or New York or L.A. and wander into an energetic, exciting place, with unusual but really good food and say to yourself, "Why don't we have places like this in Kansas City?" It turns out we do.

Delicious photos follow:
Tacos de Carnitas - (braised pork shoulder, adobo,
grilled pineapple, cilantro, onion, lime)
Tacos de Aguacate - Fried avocado,‍ salsa blanca,
 cabbage, radish, cilantro, onion, lime
Camarones Veracruzana - grilled shrimp, tomatoes, olives,
capers, jalapeños, sautéed spinach
Farmers Market Flip (My Favorite)
Sadly, no longer on the cocktail menu.
Foreground: Roselle Margarita
Background: Vodka Gimlet
Tecate Tall Boy's are popular.
This is Mexican PBR. You've been warned.
View from parking lot (yes, parking!)
When the weather is right they open up the overhead doors.
It's not just the cooks and bartenders that sport tattoos here.
Port Fonda's Wood Oven
Night Scene. Inside.
The bar is well stocked - especially with tequila and mezcal.
Queso Fundido -  chorizo rojo, chihuahua cheese,
poblano rajas, oregano
A Chimichanga Special













4 comments:

  1. We love this place and no it does not compare to your usual Mexican joint. It is incomparable!! Everyone we have taken there says they will be back.
    p.s. the parking is great!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, the Airstream. I miss it so much. I was a fan of the Choriqueso tacos - a greasy, delicious combo of ground chorizo and cheese. But I have to say, the more substantial dishes are really fantastic and the cocktails are even better at the restaurant. Just hoping those tacos make a comeback (and several friends second your tacos ostiones request!)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have it on good authority that the Oyster tacos are back on the menu soon...

    ReplyDelete
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