During frequent visits to my hometown of Austin two decades ago, Fonda San Miguel was one of my favorite places to eat. Founded in 1975 in a then-remote residential neighborhood on the north side of town, the restaurant was designed to look like a colonial hacienda, with glazed ceramic figures flanking immense carved doors, a relaxing courtyard open to the sky, and multiple handsome dining rooms. In my experience, it was one of the few restaurants in Texas to focus not on Tex-Mex fare, but regional recipes of Mexico.
During that era, Fonda San Miguel’s chef was Mexico City native Roberto Santibañez. He subsequently went on to make a name for himself in New York City at Rosa Mexicano, wrote several cookbooks, and eventually started his own chain called simply Fonda. Open since 2009, it now has branches in Chelsea, Park Slope, and Tribeca — the latter appearing just three months ago on Duane Street near West Broadway, and the subject of this review.
The decor recalls some of the charm of Fonda San Miguel. Perforated metal screens showing folk motifs stand behind the bar and between booths. A vaulted ceiling makes the room feel like a railroad dining car of yesteryear; orange banquettes flanked by small tables hug cream-colored walls, as a trestle table planted in the middle hosts groups of celebrants.
The tortilla soup ($10) is unforgettable. It’s finished tableside with a broth of the deepest brown poured over wiry strips of crisp tortilla surmounted by slices of avocado. There are no pale spongy cubes of chicken breast – just you, the flavorful broth, and the crunch. On a hot summer evening sitting outside, the watermelon salad ($12) might be the way to go, sweet red cubes tossed with cukes and fresh, rubbery white cheese. A shake of sea salt accentuates the sweetness of the melon.
There’s a ceviche, too, which is really more the consistency of a Sonoran or Sinaloan aguachile, with its bracing pink fluid, which you are likely to drink when the raw tuna and baby shrimp are exhausted. (Though I wish it had been served with saltines, as is done in Sinaloan seaside spots — and on the Jersey Shore at Long Branch’s La Valentina.) Sure, there’s a guac crushed in the usual molcajete — most Mexican restaurants make a good one — but here the creamy and chunky green stuff is almost upstaged by the warm tortilla chips that come alongside.
Ultimately, when it came to entrees I felt compelled to compare today’s Fonda with turn-of-the-century Fonda San Miguel. The menus have at least a few dishes in common. If memory serves, the enchiladas suizas were virtually the same at both places, deploying two types of cheese (hence “suizas,” or Swiss). A green tomatillo sauce adds tartness. Santibañez has a thing for duck, and in Austin, duck enchiladas came smothered in a creamy sauce tasting of green herbs and chiles. It became my favorite dish there.
The similarly picturesque zarape de pato ($15) at Fonda Tribeca is just as tasty. Named after a colorful woven shawl, the dish features tortillas mantling a filling like free-form enchiladas; in this case, luxuriant quantities of duck. The sauce of roasted tomatoes and chipotle peppers results in a fluorescent orangeness that showcases the dark taste of duck. Though listed as an app, it could easily serve as an entree.
I’m never one to complain about the size of main courses, but Fonda Tribeca’s tend to be huge, and come paired with sides of rice, fresh tortillas, and beans. These entrees include renditions of the greatest hits of Mexican cuisine, and carnitas ($26) is a case in point. Much the way it’s made in Michoacán, the rich confit comes in large chunks sizzling in a cast-iron skillet heaped with raw onions. Salsa verde and blue-corn tortillas complete the picture — nearly as good, in my opinion, as the signature carnitas Denisse Lina Chavez once made at El Atoradero, though missing that version’s slight gooeyness.
Other entrees include achiote-marinated and grilled chicken tossed with Chihuahua cheese and heaped with caramelized onions, in a tip of the hat to Tex-Mex cuisine. There’s also a chile relleno stuffed with spinach; chicken enchiladas in a sweet Oaxacan mole negro; and a Yucatán shrimp adobado that finds the spice-encrusted creatures atop a cliff of green rice, with a light black bean sauce flowing underneath like an incoming tide.
Drinkwise, there are cervezas, strong cocktails (most refreshing: a watermelon margarita, $16), and a short wine list from which a friend and I selected a grenache rosé from Ensenada’s Monte Xanic ($47). It was drier and sharper than most rosés, and the perfect foil for the assertive Mexican fare at Fonda Tribeca. For dessert don’t miss the citric tres leches cake ($9), which comes prettily sprinkled with slivered almonds and topped with a rich ivory sauce that tastes slightly of rum.
Fonda Tribeca is certainly up there among the better upscale Mexican restaurants in town, but rather than emulating modern Mexico City fare, it chooses to present sterling versions of historic recipes. One of the chief pleasures for me was enjoying the work of a chef more than 20 years after I’d first admired his cooking.