Back in the Saddle

With a New Chef, Fonda San Miguel Is Riding High

photograph by John Anderson

Fonda San Miguel
2330 W. North Loop, 459-4121
Mon-Thu, 5:30-9:30pm,
Fri-Sat, 5:30-10:30pm, Sun, 11am-2pm

Few people in the United States had ever tasted a black bean or even heard of a chipotle pepper when Fonda San Miguel first opened its now famous doors in 1976. But that was about to change. During the Seventies and Eighties, Fonda's co-founders Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago would redefine notions of Mexican food in this country by pioneering authentic interior cuisine in the unlikely outpost of Austin, Texas, garnering national recognition for themselves and putting the Texas capital on the culinary map. By the mid-Nineties, though, Fonda San Miguel was tired. It still pulled out the stops on Sunday for its renowned buffet brunch - the building's decor of Mexican artwork and lush vegetation bestowing all the romance of a colonial hacienda - but during the rest of the week, much of the food had lost its edge and the service exuded the indifference of a restaurant in decline. In 1996, the malaise culminated in a business disagreement between co-owners that saw the departure of Ravago, the restaurant's founding chef. After the trial of a few replacements that would make Jerry Jones blush, Fonda's future seemed dubious.

Enter one Roberto Santibanez, a talented chef from Mexico City who combines a passion for the cuisine of his homeland with a classical training at Paris' Cordon Bleu to create gourmet Mexican food with a colorful touch. Since taking over as Fonda's head chef eight months ago, Santibanez has reinvigorated the eatery with his haute Mexican cuisine, combining imaginative contrasts and refined sauces to create jaw-dropping specials such as the Lomito Adobado, which pits a sumptuous relish of pumpkin seeds, apples, and poblano peppers against tender slices of chile-seasoned pork fanned in a silky avocado cream sauce.

Santibanez's specials have enjoyed such a positive response that earlier this month Gilliland and his new chef overhauled Fonda's menu for the first time in nearly a decade in order to make permanent room for some of the creations. Many of the restaurant's old standbys remain; in fact, staples such as the Ceviche Veracruzano, the Enchiladas Suizas, and the Calamares With Chipotle Salsa taste better than ever. But now they're accompanied by a host of future favorites, such as the heavenly Ancho Relleno San Miguel ($14.95), a delightfully different pepper dish in which an earthy ancho chile, or dried poblano, is plumped and stuffed with chicken, nuts, raisins, and capers and nestled in a delicate cilantro cream sauce; and the towering Camarones Adobados ($19.95), a multilayered feast of ancho-marinated shrimp spiraled atop corn tortillas and strips of roasted poblano pepper in a black bean sauce.

Santibanez extends the Mexican affection for chile poblano to soup in the spicy standout Sopa Malinche ($3.95), blending the pepper with spinach, cilantro, and parsley to create a divine broth that is ladled over spongy pieces of Mexican panela cheese and topped with slivered almonds. In the Salpicon de Venado ($12.50), on the other hand, the chef adds a bit of Texas to the menu's mix, teaming seasoned Lone Star venison with olives, avocado, and field greens to make a unique salad. And perhaps Santibanez was reminiscing about his days in France when he created the Pollo en Mole con Moras ($16.95), a toothsome twist on a Mexican standard that couples a whole grilled chicken breast with a purée of fresh blackberries and raspberries, chiles, nuts, spices, and chocolate.

The mole also makes a fantastic dip for Fonda's top-notch tortillas, which deserve a few words here. Because flour tortillas are customary in Texas and northern Mexico while corn tortillas rule essentially everywhere south of Monterey, Mexican eateries almost always specialize in one or the other, depending on the proprietor's geographical roots. But Fonda offers outstanding versions of both types, which diners can watch being made by hand in the back of the restaurant next to the cozy bar. And the restaurant is not chintzy with the doughy mainstays. During our meal our waiter glided continuously and unobtrusively to and from our table to deliver fresh refills before we had time to ask for more. The waitstaff, in fact, excelled in its professionalism and courtesy, taking time to make us feel comfortable, explain nuances of the cuisine, and encourage us to relax and enjoy our meal amid the festive Mexican furnishings and giant piñatas around us.

Another welcome recent addition to Fonda San Miguel is its temperature-controlled wine cellaring and storage system, which ensures that any of the wines from the restaurant's revamped list will be fresh, even if ordered by the glass, and will arrive at your table at the proper temperature. Although pairing Mexican food with fine wine may sound odd, the combination of Fonda's cellar and Santibanez's sauces offers many excellent matches. The fruit and chocolate in the berry mole, for example, paired beautifully with the jammy Marietta zinfandel and would meet similar success with the Stag's Leap petite syrah. A seemingly suitable pairing of the Reverdy Hippolyte Sancerre and the Salpicon de Pescado appetizer ($8.95) revealed one of the few flaws in Fonda's nascent menu, however, as an excess of white onion in the salpicon dominated both the wine and the seafood starter.

The new dinner list also includes a section reserved for specials such as the aforementioned Lomito as well as developmental dishes that have enjoyed a successful audition at the ever-impressive brunch. Keep an eye out for the sublime Pollo en Pipian Rojo - boneless chicken in a thick purée of guajillo peppers and pumpkin seeds - and the rib-sticking Puerco Entomatado, a Mexico City-style stew of pork and whole chipotle peppers in a sweet tomatillo sauce that has been popular with brunchers since its introduction last month.

Behind Roberto Santibanez's exuberant cuisine and a re-dedicated staff, Fonda San Miguel has reclaimed its position at the forefront of Mexican dining. The atmosphere inside the restaurant is cheery and the employees seem genuinely excited about what they're accomplishing. So if you've never been or haven't been in a while, go; if you've only done the brunch, make reservations for dinner, because Fonda San Miguel is back.

Lucero's Cozy
Mexican Dining

Travis County Farmers' Market
Mon-Fri 11am-2pm; Sat-Sun, breakfast; dinner by reservation only

I was expecting a taqueria, a colorful little family-run Mexican cafe with standard fare running the gamut from enchiladas to carne guisada. What I found was an intimate retreat complete with white tablecloths, linen napkins, crystal glasses, and a changing daily menu restricted to three or so straightforward, if painstakingly prepared, house specialties. Lucero's Cozy Mexican Restaurant fills a diminutive stone structure at the heart of the Travis County Farmers' Market and part of what makes the tiny cafe so wonderful is the unexpected, romantic nature of the place.

Heavy French jaquard curtains keep Lucero's mysteriously dim, and strains of classical guitar float from the sound system. Diners are greeted personally by the owner, who presents a creamy dip along with a basket of chips and a glass bowl filled with fresh salsa garnished generously with cilantro. The day I slipped into Lucero's for a late lunch, enchiladas verdes, house special enchiladas blanketed with a velvety sauce of pure red chiles, and chicken fajitas were the choices. But before any of the offerings exited the kitchen, a plate of homemade chicken flautas, notable for their lack of residual grease, arrived at the table compliments of the house, along with a mound of chunky guacamole. The flautas splintered easily "undertooth," seeming a light beginning to what promised to be heavier entrées.

Lucero's prides itself on preparing everything from scratch, and while the restaurant's food is presented without added creative flourish, the kitchen's attention to detail is evident in each dish. The enchiladas verdes struck the perfect balance between the tart and spicy, the tomatillo but a component of the refined sauce. Chicken fajitas were elevated beyond the smoking Tex-Mex platter, arriving on a dinner plate interspersed with red, yellow, and green bell peppers. Finally, the house special enchiladas showcased red chiles at their best, puréed into a deep scarlet sauce that was earthy and rich in its simplicity.

While waiting for the check, small bowls of vanilla ice cream topped with a cherry appeared - again, compliments of the house. Nothing fancy or worth rhapsodizing about, but a thoughtful touch, one of the many that makes Lucero's so pleasing. At $10.89 per lunch, there are some who might consider these "extra touches" to be expected. But I'll drop $10.89 again without question, in part because the extras - from the attentive service and fresh ingredients to the complimentary fare - are what set Lucero's a world apart from other small, family-run Mexican eateries. -- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

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