There are plenty of Mexican restaurants in this city, but the great ones are few and far between. And as far as sit-down restaurants go, Mexican is an even dicier proposition. Oftentimes an upscale Mexican restaurant's dishes just feel like overpriced takes on the same old taco truck or take-out fare. That was the problem with the last two Mexican restaurants that I visited for Apps Only columns.
So my hopes were not particularly high for the South Slope's Fonda. Chef Roberto Santibañez hails from Mexico City and opened Fonda after holding the post of culinary director at Rosa Mexicano. Here, the food feels more contemporary and a fair amount less expensive than at that Union Square mainstay. I visited last week and was pleased to find that Fonda serves a selection of appetizers and small plates that included classics like guacamole and tacos—along with a few dishes I'd never heard of, but left me pleasantly surprised.
"Would you like to start with some guacamole?" our waiter inquired when we sat down at Fonda. (How did he know?) The guacamole is listed on the menu as Guacamole For Two ($10), though the portion was plenty for three of us and could probably satisfy four. It can be ordered mild, medium, or hot; we went with medium, which tasted mild to me, but homemade chipotle hot sauce on the side made for easy heat level adjustment. The made-to-order guacamole comes served in a large volcanic molcajete, and is served with fresh tortilla chips as well as fresh soft corn tortillas that the restaurant makes in-house. As far as the guacamole itself, it tasted fresh and creamy, with intact chunks of avocado, and plenty of onion and cilantro. A garnish of crumbled queso fresco was a nice touch.
Seeing taquitos on the menu conjured up images deep-fried tortillas rollups, the kind I ate in college, hastily pulled from the freezer and microwaved. These Al Pastor Taquitos ($7) were more like two-bite tacos built on the same soft, fresh tortillas that came with our guacamole. The order consisted of three, piled with tender, fairly fatty marinated pork, diced pineapple, and onion and cilantro. Walking the fine line between under- and over-stuffing, the taquitos had a great filling-to-tortilla ratio. We only tried the al pastor, but there were also pollo ($7) and carne asada ($8) options, and now I regret not trying another variety of these.
Jicama Botana ($7) was a sort of salad of sticks of jicama, carrot and cucumber drizzled with lime juice, salt, and chile de arbol. This dish was dead simple, yet brilliant: the lime and chile make the veggies refreshing and spicy, respectively, and it's fun to eat. Little mounds of more chile powder and salt sat on the plate, letting us customize our veggies. Sections of orange sat to the side of the vegetables, somewhat puzzlingly; were they garnish or part of the main event? I decided on the latter, dipping them in the chile and the salt to pretty tasty results.
On the menu, Fish Salpicon ($9) looked to me like a ceviche: chopped white fish with lime juice, onions, serrano chiles and cilantro. But in this dish the fish is cooked before being chopped, so you end up with something much different than the cured raw fish in a ceviche. Still, it's delicious when piled on more of those house made tortillas with a dash of a garlic-spiked spicy green sauce (you might think I'd be sick of those tortillas by this point in the meal--you'd be wrong).
Buried beneath the entrees on Fonda's menu sit a few side dishes for five bucks each. We tried the Sweet Plantains ($5) which were a great value, cooked until they were soft and luscious inside with crisp, caramelized edges and then topped with crema and queso fresco. The Sauteed Spinach and Mushrooms ($5) was the night's only disappointment. It wasn't bad—just a bit oversalted, and after all of the exciting dishes that preceded, it left the table without making much of a mark.
In the end we spent only $43 on food before tax and tip, coming in under our target price of $15/person. Fonda's website (which gets a gold star for being silent, non-flash based, and displaying a non-PDF menu) refers to its menu as being rooted in the urban contemporary style of Mexico City. I've never had the pleasure of visiting that part of the world, so I can't speak to authenticity. But I have visited plenty of the also-rans in the category of Mexican Restaurants in New York City (Sit-Down Division). Most of them left me feeling like I'd wasted my money, and wistful for a trip to Mexico (or at least the West Coast)—but not so with Fonda, which, in addition to serving delicious and inventive food, can boast reasonable prices and a professional, helpful staff.
Fonda Comida Mexicana
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