Wednesday, June 13, 2012

At long last - great Mexican food in New York City.

Despite being the best food city in the world, New York has always had one big hole in its food resume, great Mexican food. Forget traditional Mexican food, even our Tex Mex offerings disappointed. There were always one or two good places (Gabriella's) that people would travel to, but that was it. I am sure there are fans of Benny's Burritos and Mary Ann's that would disagree with me. I admit, I would convince myself that we had good Mexican food in New York, but then I would travel to Austin or LA and learn how wrong I was.

A few years ago the Times wrote a piece about how much good Mexican food there was in NYC that people never got to eat. The article detailed the elaborate Mexican meals that the Mexican kitchen staff in some of New York's top restaurants would make for themselves before tackling haute French cuisine for the restaurant's patron. Soon after reading that article I was in my local diner and the wait staff and busboys (predominately Mexicans) were all sitting down to lunch. I walked by them and discovered they were all digging in to plates of enchiladas with salsa verde. There are a lot of items on my diner's menu, that is not among them.

The Mexican landscape has improved a lot over the last few years. From La Esquina to Rockaway Taco, a number of chef's have tried hard to improve the level of New York's Mexican offerings. One of of the earliest of these chefs was Roberto Santibanez. Mr Santibanez is a native of Mexico City. He trained at Le Cordon Blue in Paris then returned to Mexico City where he had a number of acclaimed restaurants. He moved to Austin and ran Fonda San Miguel which led to his being named "Best Chef" by the Austin Chronicle. In 2002 he was hired as Culinary Director for Rosa Mexicano and started making his mark on the New York dining scene.

Mr Santibanez has returned to running his own restaurants and has opened two restaurants, both called Fonda, one in Brooklyn and one in the East Village. I recently ate at Fonda Manhattan and I can honestly say that the Mexican restaurant I have been waiting years for has finally arrive in New York, and in my neighborhood to boot.

Set on Avenue B between 3rd and 4th Street, Fonda separates itself from the pack by bucking a number of the trends of our culinary moment. Fonda sets you at ease and lets you know you are in for a good night before you even have your first bite of food.

Fonda takes reservations. The supposedly equitable trend of not taking reservations, which is really just a badge of honor for "hot" restaurants, does not exists at Fonda.

Fonda is a pretty restaurant. It has taken a typical box and turned it into a warm, fun, welcoming space. It is not a well curated mishmash of flea market finds. It is not Mexican kitsch with Mexican wrestling masks or Day Of The Dead dolls everywhere. The restaurant embraces color, but does in a tasteful, subdued way. The walls are painted a warm, pink hued red. A few well chosen pieces of artwork, plants and flowers give the room a more informal feel. A white fence along one wall in the back is a cute nod to the idea of a back patio.

I had no idea what the people at the table next to me were talking about. This is because Fonda, despite its smallish space, feels like a big restaurant. We have all been in restaurants lately that proudly feature communal tables and small tables jammed together so that you are knocking knees with the person next to you and shouting at your companion over the din. Fonda goes the opposite way. Another restaurant would try to squeeze in double the number of tables at Fonda. Fonda lets you stretch out, relax and be comfortable.

The front of the restaurant is dominated by an attractive, very oversized bar. This signals a dedication to good drinks and the ability to enjoy them with out being jostled. It also means you can be very comfortable having your dinner siting at the bar.

The night I ate at Fonda we were seated in the back room. This is where most of the seating is. We were a group of five and instead of being squeezed into a four top we were given a table for six that any other restaurant would have said was a table for 10-12. A big, comfortable banquet ran the length of the back wall on one side of the table and the other side had large, comfortable chairs. I am a big man and I cannot remember that last time a restaurant seated me in a chair that didn't feel like it was for a toddler or was going to collapse under me.

As much a I love the space, it means nothing if the food at Fonda doesn't deliver. It does.

We started with guacamole, of course.

There are people who swear by Rosa Mexicano for their guac alone. Considering that was Mr. Santibanez's doing he has a reputation to live up to and Fonda doesn't disappoint. The guacamole is served in the traditional stone bowl, made to order, and it is delicious. One nice touch is that in addition to house made tortilla chips the guacamole is also served with small, warm tortillas. Mini guac sandwiches. Yes.

Drinks. Fonda has a nice selection of Mexican beers and tequilas and a festive menu of margaritas and cocktails. I started with a Tamarindo:

Silver tequilla, tamarind nectar, orange liquor, fresh lime juice and house made Pasilla rim. Fresh, festive and refreshing, the Tamarindo puts a smile on your face and makes all the day's tensions drift away.

Fonda's menu gives a a broad overview of Mexican cooking. This is reflected in the diverse selection of appetizers which should not be missed, as you will see below. Whatever you do start with the Melted Cheese with Grilled Chorizo.

Melted Cheese with Grilled Chorizo. Do I really need to go into detail? A square cast iron skillet comes to your table with melted Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheese studded with Mexican chorizo and tomatillo-serrano salsa and soft corn tortillas on the side. This is cheese fondue as the Mayan Gods imagined. It is addictive and you will find yourself scraping up the last, crusty bits on the bottom of the pan and rolling them into tubes and to crunch on.

Next up try the Duck Zarape:

I am the first to admit I am not an expert on Mexican cuisine, but I am fairly certain that duck is not a traditional ingredient. If I am wrong, please let me know (because I love leaning new things about food, but mostly because I love duck, and I now love Mexican duck).

Two soft corn tortillas are filled with delicious, juicy braised duck then covered in a rich, thick roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce. This is pure decadence and you need to make sure you have extra tortillas to sop up every last drop of the cream sauce.

For me, few things are better than the seafood you can find on the Yucatan Peninsula. In particular I love the ceviches you can find in little seafood shacks up and down the coast. Fonda represents for the Yucatan with its Fish Salpicon:

Simplicity and beauty personified. Chopped Whitefish (breaded and fried I believe, a little twist on the usual ceviche that adds a nice crunch) with lime juice, onions, Serrano chiles and cilantro with soft corn tortillas and a green salsa on the side. This is the best way to channel Tulum in NYC that I know of.

Time to refresh my drink. This time I went with the Sandia, similar to the Tamarindo, but with watermelon juice in place of the tamarind nectar. Yeah buddy. (I like to get little fruity with my drinks in the summer. You got a problem with that? I didn't think so).

The only question remaining is do the main courses at Fonda live up to what come before. Yes indeed. Again, there is an array of traditional dishes and a few modern spins to make everyone happy.

Three different types of enchiladas cover a wide spectrum. For a modern twist try the bright, colorful and flavorful Pescado Al Guajillo.

The dish features a pan-seared fillet of the catch-of-the-day in a passion fruit sauce with potatoes and asparagus. Gorgeous on the plate and on the palate.

Cochinita Pibil, a traditional Yucatan dish, is an achiote marinated pork shoulder, slow baked so it is tender, juicy and deeply flavorful. This is really southern pulled pork. Mixiote de Pollo is bone-in chicken cooked in a parchment pouch with banana leaves, roasted tomato achiote sauce and avocado leaves. Mexican chicken stew for the soul.

All of the above are delicious and great choices. But the night I was at Fonda there was a special on offer that was going to be my personal litmus test. Pollo w/ Mole Negro.

Chicken with a dark mole sauce is my single favorite Mexican dish. I have tried it everywhere. I have had mediocre mole, good mole and a few great moles. I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in Mexico and the best mole I have ever eaten was in Mexico City. It was many years ago. I cannot remember the name of the restaurant, but it was in a beautiful hacienda with a center courtyard and fountain and was fairly formal. They were famous for their mole. I have finally found a mole that stands up to the one I found in Mexico City.

Tortillas are stuffed with chicken and covered in mole sauce. Fonda adds some cheese, shredded cilantro, sesame seeds. But the only thing that matters is the mole sauce, and Fonda nails it. Their mole is deep, dark and rich. There are hints of rich dark chocolate and spice. The depth of their mole is like looking into the abyss. Jump in.

There are desserts on offer, but we were to full to try them. Fonda exceeded my expectations. While only a few blocks away Empellon is being covered and written about in breathless prose, Fonda goes about its business of delivering an experience of comfort, joy and the varied flavors of Mexican Cuisine. The staff could couldn't be more friendly, professional and welcoming (no hipsters, tattoos, skinny jeans or watch caps in sight).

With Fonda Roberto Santibanez is spreading the Gospel of Mexican food. This is a master of Mexican cooking at work. That hole in New York's food reputation is officially closed.

Fonda Comida Mexicana (Manhattan) - 40 Avenue B (between 3rd & 4th Street)


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