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|KCMag.com: FRESH FROM THE OVEN|
STORY AND PHOTOS BY Pete Dulin
No matter if the economy is up or down, people have to eat. New restaurants continue to pop up like mushrooms around Kansas City to sate the appetite of locavores in search of buzz-worthy food and an authentic experience.
Shooting some star power into the city, celebrity chef and Food Network show co-host Aarón Sánchez opened Mestizo in Leawood’s Park Place (5270 W. 116th Place), introducing regional Mexican fare with an emphasis on freshness and authenticity. Beautifully designed in orange hues and cool blues and adorned with light fixtures suspended like harvest moons, Mestizo is the first expansion by Sánchez outside of his two New York restaurants. His focus on regional cuisine is what keeps the crowds coming and tables booked.
“Our pozole soup ($9) has many flavors that are indigenous to the Pueblo and Veracruz regions,” Sánchez says. “Some of the ingredients include braised pork, tomatillos, golden hominy and guajillo peppers. Another favorite from that region is our sopes ($10), which are made with masa, black beans and achiote.”
The bar, anchored by a striking Tree of Life sculpture, serves premium tequilas, margaritas and select wines. These drinks pair well with entrées of steak, scallops and oysters on the half shell ($14/6). And anyone who is the least bit thirsty is in for some smashing drinks.
“Some of our featured tequilas are Herradura Select, which pairs nicely with our crisp pork belly ($11), and our Gran Centenario varietals pair with our seafood paella fritters ($14) and pepita crusted scallops ($12),” Sánchez says. “Corzo tequila pairs well with our chilaquiles ($13) or arroz con crema ($9), which is my mother’s famous creamy rice dish.”
Feeling extravagant? Ask for a shot of 1800 from the $4,000 bottle. Aged 10 years in French oak, the tequila is served from one of a series of limited-edition bottles designed by artist Hector Velazquez (Mestizo has No. 39). A single shot comes with a $200 price tag.
All food truck fans—well, food fans in general—should rush to the new Port Fonda spinoff. Co-owners and chefs Patrick Ryan and Max Watson joined forces to open a full-scale Port Fonda restaurant in Westport. They took over the space at 4141 Pennsylvania once secured for Barrio, a restaurant Dan Doty had planned to open with the late Chef John McClure. “All openings are difficult, but this was a great situation where everyone involved has control,” Ryan says.
A patio adds appeal for Westport diners and drinkers. An adjacent space to the restaurant is the semi-permanent home for the food truck when it’s not on assignment around town. While the food truck specializes in mobile Mexican street food such as tacos and chilaquiles, the sit-down restaurant offers plated entrées. “The restaurant has more inventive dishes,” Ryan says. “Fresh salads in spring, caldos, pozole, menudo and sopes in winter.” Patrons also will find a bar stacked with Boulevard and Mexican beers, specialty cocktails, wine, grower Champagnes and fine tequilas.
Restaurant service moves at a more relaxed pace conducive to multi-course dining compared to the grab-and-go offerings of the food truck. Communal dining options such as whole roasted snapper or a large roast of pork or beef also set the restaurant apart from street tacos. “There’s a new generation of diners who are more comfortable sharing meals,” Ryan says.
Port Fonda also will offer a more personal seating option akin to the private table in the food truck. “We plan to have a chef’s table dining option in the restaurant available as a special experience,” Ryan says.
Combined with local music and art, the experience is meant to be festive and community oriented. Ryan intends to invite other local chefs to collaborate on special menus to further unite the Kansas City food scene. With such strong brand recognition established in the space of a year, Port Fonda’s latest venture offers exciting promise to the historic dining and entertainment district.
Nearby, and also on wheels, is the Westport Street Fare Food Truck, operated by Aaron Confessori, co-owner of Westport Café and Bar (419 Westport Road). It first opened in fall 2011 and hibernated during the cold winter months. With spring’s approach, Westport Street Fare is ready to fire up the engine once again to feed hungry customers.
The mobile eatery offers a selection of street tacos with spicy sauces, as well as ramen—and those who developed an aversion to ramen during their college years will be pleasantly surprised. “The noodles are made from scratch,” Confessori says. Westport Street Fare prepares homemade dashi, Japanese soup stock that serves as the base for many dishes. Confessori serves up hearty alkaline noodles with the rich broth, meat and savory flavoring to warm the soul after a night of drinks and revelry.
Marble Top Café (8436 Ward Parkway) is the new restaurant operation of chef Yahia Kamal, best known as the face behind the Yummy’s Choice (1608 W. 39th St.) line of Mediterranean foods. Kamal serves his hummus with gyro and falafel sandwiches (both $5.99), dolmas, saffron rice (both $3.99) and other dishes at the restaurant located just a few blocks north of Trader Joe’s. “It’s a scaled-down menu that allows me to spend more time with customers,” Kamal says.
Not only are the food and atmosphere refreshing, but the drinks also revive the spirit. The café serves espresso, hot tea and Kamal’s fruit-based lemonades with hints of rosewater. “I’m just a man trying to make a living, to run a family business,” he says humbly. With a hint of a smile, he adds, “I’m not McDonald’s.”
Marble Top Café, Westport Street Fare, Port Fonda restaurant and Mestizo—these relatively new eateries are all a far cry from any fast-food joint. The chefs’ distinct interpretations of regional cuisine satisfy a taste for adventure at the cost of a quick bite to eat. No matter the state of the economy, Kansas City is home to plenty of interesting dining experiences worth exploring, so pick up your fork and get busy.