By JOHN DeMERS
Way back in 1975, it’s hard to remember exactly what we knew about Mexican food – except that there was a lot more we didn’t know. Yet that’s when Fonda San Miguel opened its doors in Austin, proclaiming there was not only “authentic” Mexican food to be had in addition to our beloved Tex-Mex but no fewer than seven different regional cuisines within that. The notion must have been striking back then – though not as striking as the interiors the owners brought in to help sell food from the so-called Mexican “interior.”
There was artwork galore filling every vaguely flat inch, some of it by Mexican artists who either already enjoyed or were coming to enjoy fame. Some of the art was serious, yet much of it was whimsical in either subject or style. There were hand-carved wooden doors from Guanajuato, lanterns from San Miguel de Allende – all in various stages of cover-and-reveal thanks to an explosion-in-a-paint-factory’s worth of tropical plants. For a cuisine most Texans knew only as the stuff of hole-in-the-wall fantasies, Fonda San Miguel was a dream come true.
As I discovered during my recent birthday celebration, it still is.
The restaurant is just showbiz enough, roughly doing for Mexican cuisine what the century-old Columbia does for Cuban food in Tampa’s historic Ybor City. Everything is real within these walls, but definitely slanted away from the more rugged parts of history to embrace the more genteel parts. The plates are generous and beautifully presented, without tumbling over the edge into frou-frou. Something is definitely amiss whenever Mexican cuisine does that.
Antojitos, the properly colorful name given to appetizers, include several Fonda must-haves: led off by the Tostadas Compuestas Surtidas – a trio of chicken, guacamole and the Yucatan’s wonderful (and wonderfully red) pork dish cochinita pibil. Other great choices include the ceviche sampler and the pork tacos al pastor. Over the past 30-plus years, these tacos have become a major signature at Fonda San Miguel.
Enchiladas are a fiesta of mix-and-match, with a creative list of fillings and another of sauces – more like gravies, really. The fillings are chicken, pork, cheese and vegetables, with the gravies wandering a bit farther afield. You can get mole poblano, verdes (lovely green sauce) or Suizas. There’s also a specific creation called enchiladas de pato, with shredded duck inside topped with a sauce of poblano and spinach. And despite our love affair with the name of the shrimp dish called Tikin Xik, we always go for the Pescado Veracruzano with plenty of tomatoes, capers, onions and olives.
Typical of a real Mexican village, there aren’t a ton of expensive meats on the menu. In addition to the entrée-size cochinita pibil, your carnivore sure thing has to be the carne asada a la Tampiquena – grilled beef tenderloin that shows up with its own cheese enchilada. If you ask me (and/or join me for my birthday at Fonda San Miguel), every beef tenderloin on earth should show up with its own cheese enchilada.