Even if you’re the doubting type, Port Fonda’s chef, Patrick Ryan, can make you believe in reincarnation.
When Ryan debuted his sleekly refurbished 36-foot Airstream trailer in The Star’s parking lot to inaugurate Food Truck Friday in May 2011, the lines that snaked across the asphalt indicated he had an instant hit on his hands.
Turns out Ryan would spend barely a year and a half on wheels before going brick and mortar. But his short-lived food truck/chef’s table hybrid remains one of the highlights of my dining career and earned Port Fonda a rare four-star review.
Ryan’s six-person, chef’s table trailer dinners, dubbed El Comedor, featured a signature heritage pork butt caramelized and rendered so meltingly tender it could be pulled apart with little effort by tongs or, better yet, torn to shreds with your fingers.
Back then Ryan had fewer tattoos, and his ginger beard was scrubbier. But already his engaging shoot-from-the-hip persona magnified the urban-cool vibe happening outside. As downtown professionals, culinary thrill seekers and artsy hipsters gathered together on a Crossroads street corner at twilight to nosh on tacos and chilaquiles served from the galley kitchen window, Kansas City was having a truly unique and cosmopolitan food moment.
Not surprisingly, when Ryan opened Port Fonda 2.0 in the summer of 2012, the buzz bordered on ridiculousness. I took my time before heading to his place in Westport, partly because I couldn’t get my head around how such a seemingly singular mobile-food experience might translate. Once I stepped inside the new Port Fonda space, I started feeling more at ease. The décor — reclaimed timber paneling and street-front windows shaded with tattoo-like stencils — felt a lot like a pumped up Airstream.
Everything about the new space was familiar — even the loudish hip-hop and rock music that, at least on weekend nights, gives Port Fonda a quasi-dance club aura. It’s easy to feel a bit old when squinting in the dim light at the red typewriter font used to print the menu, but the crowd was nearly all ages.
One night I spotted an intriguing flower-child-themed birthday party, complete with flaming cake delivered as the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” hit full throttle. On another night I spotted parents out to grab a bite with their teenage son.
Seeking to capture some of the original Port Fonda juju, I became superstitious, inviting the same crew who had shared in the carnal pleasures of the trailer to join me again. I ordered many of the signature dishes from the trailer, including chilaquiles (tortilla chips soaked in salsa verde and topped with a fried egg), which has become one of my all-time favorite dishes, the esquite asado (grilled corn cut from the cob and mixed with cotija cheese, epazote and lime) and the donas de requeson (fried ricotta doughnut balls).
Surprise. The dishes were just as satisfying as I remembered. But I still craved the pork prize. While poking around Port Fonda’s Facebook page, I hit the holy grail: with two days notice I could order a “pork butt pick-up” for $240 that serves eight. But I was even more ecstatic to learn from Ryan that the Airstream will be dusted off and parked on the grass pad between the restaurant and its next-door neighbor, Shine Spa, sometime in March.
Beyond the old favorites, the Port Fonda menu is designed to allow diners to mix and match items. Ryan does an admirable job of expanding on his original vision (and on his early training with legendary chef Rick Bayless at Chicago’s Frontera Grill).
The Sopa Port Fonda — pork broth spiked with bacon and chili, enriched with grilled and roasted vegetables and braised pork shoulder, studded with dumplings and topped with a fried egg — is a gourmet meal for one. It has been moved from the dinner menu, where items are more shareable, to the lunch menu, which debuts March 4.
Meanwhile, the dinner menu continues to feature starters like the killer queso fundido, melted Green Dirt Farm bossa cheese with bits of chorizo verde, poblano rajas and a sprinkling of oregano, as well as tacos and cazuelitas, disc-shaped Spanish clay cooking pots that are heated to sizzling perfection in a wood-burning oven.
If I were eating at Port Fonda with my kids, I’d order the tender carnitas tacos with grilled pineapple, a delicately breaded and fried pork tenderloin torta on egg bread, the tender pork and ricotta albondigas or the chicken chimichanga, a frequent special and the only Tex-Mex-style entree on the menu.
Familiar with the basics, my crew was up for the more adventurous items, including the pork belly tacos and the braised beef tongue tacos, which are brined for days to naturally tenderize the meat, and served with creamed hominy.
But cazuelitas are the best way to sample the kitchen’s mastery of traditional Mexican sauces. Ryan seemed stumped when I asked for an exact number of sauces his cooks are crafting daily, but I counted at least a half dozen: salsa de molcajete, made in a traditional mortar and pestle from roasted poblano; a vinegary adobo; a salsade suegra or mother-in-law sauce of tomatillo and serrano; a salsa roja, a cooked tomato-based salsa; and salsa negra, an almost black sauce with smoky chipotle.
With every new dish that arrived, a hush fell over the table. The richness of the panza, a crispy pork belly cooked with Rancho Gordo heritage beans, was balanced by a garnish of pickled tomatillos and peppery arugula. The brininess of braised pulpo (octopus) paired with bits of bacon was complemented by the brightness of the thick tomato puree. The camarones Veracruzana is a startlingly beautiful mélange of fresh shrimp, tomato, olives, capers and jalapenos topped off with a tangle of sauteed spinach.
With no menu item more than $16, we ordered plenty, making dessert seem like lavish excess. The doughnuts, plus a dark, drippy coffee mug of Christopher Elbow drinking chocolate capped the meal off quite nicely. Next time I plan to try his new-to-the-menu seasonal Glacé ice creams.
Even if it is sometimes unsettling, Port Fonda fans can expect more tweaking in the coming months.
“It’s so difficult going from a trailer where I got to cook everything. It was really small and really controlled and hands-on. And then you go to something a little bit bigger, and it’s difficult not to lose some of the charm and personality,” Ryan says.
Of course, the ability to grow, change and adapt is the right path to take.
“It’s been such a learning experience,” Ryan says. “We’re figuring things out. We have the opportunity to be a really busy, good and cool Westport bar that also has the ability to be taken seriously for its food.”