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Mar 22, 2006 12:54 PM

Austin Mexican Food - La Fonda bah! Curra's - YES!

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Recently having moved from California, I've been on the lookout for good Mexican food in Austin. I've been generally amused by the local penchant for "chili con queso" (read velveeta mixed with salsa) that is served here and the flour tortillas. Where oh where can I get a good home made corn tortilla, not to mention some Carnitas???

My mom (Mexican American) came here to visit from Vegas this weekend and I was REALLY on the spot to please her (not easy). I had been looking for an excuse to visit La Fonda San Miguel, which is supposed to be a nationally known Mexican gourmet place. I had been for appetizers and drinks a few months before and loved the sopecitos and watermelon martini/margarita. So we went last night for the full dinner with the 'rents. Such a disappointment!

First I asked for that wonderful watermelon margarita/martini which I had been told 2 months before was a specialty of the house. The waiter looked at me with confusion and said there were no watermelons. "Yeah" I thought "... there probably weren't in January, either, but you managed it then.... " So I got a $10 pear margarita that did not taste of pear. It was small and when my glass was empty (quickly) no one asked me if I wanted more. The waiter seemed in quite a hurry to get us in and out.

The appetizers - I was TRULY disheartened that the waiter first suggested that we have some chili con queso with our chips. This is an expensive restaurant. I have spent considerable time in various parts of Mexico and never have I seen velveeta, I mean, Chili con queso on the menu. They say its from Chihuahua. Ok, I've never been there. Maybe Chihuahua has a special brand of velveeta. And I never saw the La Fonda queso, maybe it was something different. I should give them the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I denied our waiter the pleasure of bringing us this regional specialty (guffaw) and I opted for the sopecitos (delicious!) and the ceviche for the table. The ceviche was good, but pedestrian, and not really served so it could be easily shared. It should have been served in a bowl. The fish was tough - typical of a counter-type marisco place. One mangy piece of avocado on top and no hot sauce or chilis served with it. I'd enjoy it as a lunch snack, though.

The fish dishes (all one kind) were all "market price" which seemed scary - we had to ask the price, but it turned out all the fish was $19. I think it was all snapper or something similar. My mom had the Veracruzana (which her mom in Mazatlan used to make.) She said did not taste fresh, was mushy and sat in liquid on the plate. She suspected canned tomatoes. I had an ancho relleno which was stuffed with a chicken mixture in a pool of cilantro cream. It was very pretty and pretty good although I needed a salt shaker and it was a little small. The sauce came on at least 2-3 other things on the menu and was very simple. I would probably not order it again. I do love traditional chile enogada, which has a complicated walnut cream sauce, much more complex than this.

My step-dad had pork chops that he liked a lot - they were rotisserie cooked and looked quite good. My husband had some grilled beef (carne asada) that he said was pretty but not filling nor special tasting. He was still hungry after he ate it. For a $29 beef plate, he should have felt fed.

All of their enchilada plates here are $18. Enchiladas should not cost $18 imho. Maybe they do something extrordinary with enchiladas but I cannot imagine what that might be - they aren't even described except that you can get mole, green (verde) or cream sauce (suizas) with pork, chicken or cheese.

With dinner, we had to ask for tortillas and my mom thought that her second one was flour. This displeased her. I didn't taste them, so I didn't know.

The dessert was the worst. Just awful. My family had what was described as mangos with home made ice cream. This conjured up a vision of juicy fresh sweet mangos with fresh creamy ice cream. The menu said to ask what kinds of special flavors of ice cream were available that day. They did, hoping for a mango ice cream. Well, the special flavor for the day was vanilla. Woo Hoo. So, they got it anyway and 3 large goblets with a small dollop of ice cream on the bottom were placed in front of each diner. Then the waiter poured from a vat of boiling syrup into each large goblet. While the boiling liquid was being poured (glop, glop, glop), it splashed on my mom (she yelled "ow!".) Waiter seemed non-plussed. My husband had three small slices of what seemed like canned mango floating in his syrup, now milky with the totally melted ice cream; my mom had only ONE lonely little mango slice. It was gross. Just gross. They ended up drinking the slightly milky syrup like a fruit drink out of their bowls.

I had what was described as almond flan. Now, there is an almond flan gelatina that is very traditional and which I have made before. Its silken and beautiful. This was a flat hard cold custard pie with chucks of almond in it. It wasn't nice or special or like any postre I've had in any good restaurant in Mexico.

This was an expensive meal, yet the service was rushed, and it did not live up to its hype. The building is beautiful, though. I'd go back for half price happy hour drinks and appetizers, just to soak up the ambiance but thats it. I, of course, got to hear a tirade from mama about how bad the place was and how it just catered to gringos.

I also took her to Curra's Grill which we LOVED. Curra'a grill is the best Mexican in Austin that I have found. Too bad that it has rickety tables and is a tad funky for a dinner house and to take your 78 year old grumpy mom, although my mom loved it and didn't even seem to mind the hippie atmosphere once she started eating her cochinita pibil and platanos. I had fantastic mole there, btw. Just perfect mole. Too many people think mole is chocolate sauce with a hint of chile. Its supposed to be chile sauce with a hint of chocolate! Curras is gooooood. Then we split a huge portion of tres leches cake which was fabulous and some fried platanos with cajeta sauce. I want to put Curra's food in La Fonda's restaurant. This is real and good regional Mexican cuisine!!

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  1. b
    Brian Lindauer

    > Where oh where can I get a good home made corn
    > tortilla, not to mention some Carnitas???

    Angie's on E. 7th, just east on I-35 has great corn tortillas and carnitas.


    2 Replies
    1. re: Brian Lindauer
      Seamus Mitwurst

      Dinner at Fonda is always just ok.
      The real meal there is brunch.

      Their queso is not Tex-Mex Velveeta crud.
      It's more of a queso flameado, maybe asadero with rajas.
      Better than your average queso, but still just cheese and chiles.

      1. re: Brian Lindauer

        yes! angie's carnitas are the shiznit. but you might be disheartened when first encountering the shredded american cheese they add on top. i urge you to fight any negative feelings towards fluorescent processed cheeses. power through. you will soon realize that it makes the perfect topper to their perfect carnitas.

      2. Chile con Queso, as made in Texas, is 'authentic' even with Velveeta. it is neither Mexican nor American, but has no less cultural history because of it. Yes it is made with processed cheese, and for that reason you may not like it (you wouldn't be alone), but please try to understand the context of the food served here before teeing of on subjects of authenticity. This book would be a good start,

        7 Replies
        1. re: LB

          La Fonda is supposed to be famous for its authentic regional Mexican cuisine, not "Tex-Mex." If you want Tex-Mex, you should go to a Tex-Mex restaurant, which is not what La Fonda is supposed to be. Chili con queso originated in Texas and is NOT a Mexican regional cuisine, although the menu stated that it was from the Mexican state of Chihuahua - which I think is bunk!!!

          The only melty cheese appetizer thingy I've had in Mexico is queso fundido, melted white cheese in a cazuela or similar earthenware plate or bowl with mushrooms or chorizo that you dip fresh corn tortillas into. This is awesome stuff but I think La Fonda has this, too. It aint Chili queso goop.

          1. re: Iptacita

            Oh, well I'm sure if you've never heard of it, it must be bunk.


            1. re: Pssst

              And another Peyton recipe/explanation -

              Or maybe you trust Diana Kennedy?

              Yet another reference -

              1. re: Pssst

                Recipes listed are pretty far afield from whats served in Tex-Mex restaurants! Did you notice that the recipe you copied was from a Tex-Mex cookbook, not a regional Mexican cookbook? Using queso de Oaxaca is quite far from the velveeta surprise here I've seen. What is described is closer to a queso fundido or a cheese sauce - which is very traditional and delicious! The yellow glue stuff served with chips as an appetizer is not regional cuisine.

                Also - To clarify, I have never had this at La Fonda - so I don't know what they serve. I do know that the waiter pushed it as a chip dip - because this is what they do here in Tejas. That was not what Diana Kennedy was talking about in Mexico. You want to melt some queso de Oaxaca for me on the other hand and give me some home made flour tortillas - I will definitely chow down with you!! Its my very favorite Mexican cheese!!

                There is nothing wrong with Texican cuisine. But it's its own style which is different than traditional Mexican food. Thinking about it though, Texas is almost like its own region in Mexico - considering its history. So, perhaps one could consider Texican cooking a style of regional Mexican cuisine??? Interesting issue to ponder.


                1. re: Iptacita

                  "I have spent considerable time in various parts of Mexico and never have I seen velveeta, I mean, Chili con queso on the menu. They say its from Chihuahua. Ok, I've never been there. Maybe Chihuahua has a special brand of velveeta. And I never saw the La Fonda queso, maybe it was something different."

                  The menu at Fonda San Miguel clearly states that they serve the Chihauhau version of Chile con queso and that its served with tortillas. (FYI - I have had this dish at FSM and in Mexico. FSM, just like their menu states, serves the Chihauhaun dish, not the Tex-Mex variation)

                  While Jim Peyton's website has a link to his latest book which is Tex-Mex, he has written cookbooks on Northern Mexico and his recipe clearly identifies its as a Chihauhaun dish and the second link explains the history of the dish.

                  The Diana Kennedy book is The Cuisines of Mexico.

                  Since you clearly stated your lack of knowledge of this dish, I was attempting to educate you on its existence with several citations so it would be clear that it wasn't the creation of a singular person.

                  And I cited known experts in the field while you cited Wikipedia which clearly states "WIKIPEDIA MAKES NO GUARANTEE OF VALIDITY"

                  1. re: Pssst

                    Thanks for the excellent information Pssst.


                    1. re: Scott
                      Tha Groovin' Gourmet

                      I second that emotion.

                      When discussing Mexican cuisine in the US, it is easy to run into misinterpretation as this thread so elegantly illustrates. With the various regional US styles abounding ("Where's the best TexMex restaurant in NYC?") and more authentic regional Mexican cooking coming into play, people can be disappointed if they go into a restaurant with misguided

        2. We also tried Fonda because of all the rave reviews and we were very disappointed. Not only is the food and service nothing to rave about, but it is way overpriced. I have no qualms about paying for a good dinner but this wasn't worth it all. Since we've only been once, we'll give it another try, probably for brunch or at least drinks and appetizers. I love the atmosphere and the location is so close to my house. I really wanted to love the food!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Helen
            Tha Groovin' Gourmet

            Do the brunch. It will change your perception dramatically. And get some of their chipotle salsa if you like it hot...have to ask for it.

            I'd agree that the service is not always spot on, but I've never had a bad bite in the place. There was a stretch when Miguel Ravago was not there and quality suffered, but luckily I missed that stretch (unfortunately my wife didn't).

            And while not inexpensive, I think the prices are in line with any fine dining establishment. This is not TexMex nor a taco stand we are talking about.

          2. I can understand the complaints about quality. Fine, you didn't like it. But I don't understand the complaints about price at all. Are you comparing the price with a taqueria or combo platter place or Chevy's? A fish dish at a fairly nice restaurant for $19 seems very fair. You'd expect it to be 50% more expensive if it were a French or Italian restaurant. Enchiladas are going to $8-12 at a combo platter place and they'll be using mole from a jar. I imagine Fonda San Miguel makes it from scratch.

            I think this is one of those cases where Robb Walsh's lamentations fit. Mexican food just doesn't get enough respect because we've become so used to the low end places and don't see it as an upscale cuisine.

            I wish Rachel Laudan's article about Mexican authenticity was still available on the internet for free. She rightly pointed out that the Mexicans she knows (I believe she either lives or lived there) cook with canned and processed foods just like us Americans do. Go into any Mexican market and you'll see aisles of canned goods, jarred sauces, Knorr, commercial, mass-produced cheeses, etc. This includes, btw, cheese sauce in a can. And this is the country that has brought the world Bimbo bread, essentially the Wonder of Latin America. Few Mexicans actually eat freshly made tortillas. They go down to a commercial tortilleria that produces stuff similar to what you can get at any supermarket (though theirs is fresher). Mexico is a developing nation with a growing middle and upper class who don't have the time, luxury, or necessity for food from scratch. More and more, what you find in Kennedy's books are what their abuelas made, just like for us here in the US we nostalgically remember our grandmother's meatloaf, gravy, apple pie, etc.


            1 Reply
            1. re: extramsg
              Tha Groovin' Gourmet

              Very well stated.

              From the sound of the original post, perhaps Miguel was not in the kitchen that night? I realize that's not much of an excuse, but it might be an explanation if a couple of dishes were not stellar.

              All that being said, I think anyone's first visit to FSM should be for Sunday brunch. Once you have that experience, you'll always hold the restaurant in a particular esteem. What an awesome Mex dining experience!

            2. I live right around the corner from the place - I ate there once just over three years ago (on a first date) and it was awesome.

              Ate there again last year with her mother and sister and it seemed okay but ridiculously priced. The link below was my sentiment a year ago.

              We are now getting married in April and will honeymoon in the Yucatan and then in Oaxaca. When we get back, we'll go to FSM to celebrate. I'll be an expert on Mexican cuisine because I will "have been to Mexico." I'll post then, but in a condescending, haughty sort of manner. I probably castigate Tex Mex and Americans in general.

              I did read that only one of the "seven moles" of Oaxaca contains chocolate.