Miguel and the Miracles
Why Fonda San Miguel Is Still in Business Against All Odds
One day last week, Miguel Ravago, the executive chef of Fonda San Miguel, was jabbing a finger into the air, pointing out something that doesn't really exist to him. He was talking about the mole with blackberries, a sweet and sour, intensely colored, rich sauce invented by Roberto Santibañez, a former Fonda chef. Santibañez's mole is an example of popular Nueva Cocina cuisine, which takes traditional Mexican ingredients and gives them a French spin. "There's a lot of moles that have fruits added to them in different ways," Santibañez says from his hometown of Mexico City, where he now does consulting work for Nestlé. "It just came up, adding blackberries, because we had them." But there had never been a fruity mole on the menu at Fonda San Miguel until he came along. Santibañez's mole entered the discussion only because a reporter made Ravago talk about it. It's still on the menu, but a new menu is scheduled to appear in March and it's likely that the mole with blackberries won't make the final cut. "He's a creative chef," Ravago says, not dismissively or derisively but categorically. A creative chef is a good thing to be, but not something Miguel Ravago aspires to become.
People who know Ravago, or are longtime regulars at Fonda San Miguel, know why mole with blackberries doesn't interest him and why he might seem a tad put out by someone nosing around about it. But for those of us who were taught that the No. 2 Combination Plate is about as Mexican as you can get, who came to the phrase "interior Mexican cuisine" as baffled latecomers, authentic Mexican cuisine continues to surprise with unfailingly delicious revelations. Mole with blackberries, as it turns out, isn't on the menu because it's not authentic or traditional or documented. "They can ask me, 'Where's that from?' and I'd go, 'Uh, there!'" Ravago says, looking up and pointing at nothing. "It's not authentic Mexican."
Ravago is a kind of documentary chef whose consuming passion is to bring the dishes of Mexico, in all their regional complexity and variance, to Fonda San Miguel. Last year, when he returned there after five years as a chef in New York and at other restaurants and a now-defunct catering business in Austin, he first went to Fonda's famous Sunday brunch. "The whole brunch was all signs," he says, "little signs everywhere. So when I came back, I took all the signs off and I stand behind the buffet and at least serve the main courses so I could explain, put the accouterments on, tell them where it's from, and say, 'Eat this with flour tortillas, but this you have to eat with corn because you really taste the flavor.'" The whole point of Fonda San Miguel, its "gimmick," as Ravago acknowledges, is to transport the customer deep into Mexico.
For a very long time now, Ravago and Tom Gilliland, who owns Fonda San Miguel, have been seducing diners into believing that Mexico is a place you get to from North Loop. Staunch, rigorous traditionalists when it comes to Mexican cuisine, from the beginning Ravago and Gilliland have nonetheless been daring innovators who insisted on serving only the foods found in Mexico, the precise way they are prepared in Mexico. This meant that they were unable to serve chips and hot sauce and enchiladas stuffed with ground beef smothered in yellow cheese and ranchero sauce. This, in a state whose residents are so disposed to those old standbys they made up a name for it: Tex-Mex. Instead, they served conchinita pibil, the classic Yucatan dish of shredded pork stewed in banana leaves or chile relleno with a poblano chile, not a green bell pepper from Safeway. "Back in the Seventies, we practically didn't have things as exotic as flautas," recalls Patricia Sharpe, a senior editor and food writer for Texas Monthly. "It was just all very predictable, very cutesy, and not that Tex-Mex is bad or anything, but it was what it was."
In 1972, the young restaurateurs opened San Angel in a little house in Houston. Ravago's grandmother, who was from the northern Mexican state of Sonora and who taught him everything she knew about Mexican cuisine, came down to help them open the restaurant. One Saturday two months after they opened San Angel, Diana Kennedy alighted on their doorstep. At that time, Kennedy was just emerging as the Julia Child of Mexican cooking; she had just published her first cookbook, Cuisines of Mexico, and her obsessive devotion to documenting the regional particulars of how Mexicans cooked opened up an entire nation's palate to the rest of the world. But Kennedy arrived at a time of day when San Angel was closed.
For the fledgling restaurant owners, a visit from Diana Kennedy would have been like ... well, who could even imagine such a wonderful thing happening? "I didn't recognize her; neither did Miguel," Gilliland says. "But what happened was, I saw these two ladies out on the patio and I opened the door and I said, 'You know, I'm very sorry, but we're not open till 5:30' and this other lady said, 'Oh, that's too bad. I have Diana Kennedy with me.' And I said, 'Uh, Diana Kennedy who wrote the book on Mexican cooking?' And Diana said, 'That's me!'" The recollection beckons him to use a little old lady voice when assuming the role of Diana Kennedy. "And I said, 'Well, gosh, I'm really sorry we're not open but come on in.' She liked us," he points out. Her admiration was a badge of honor for Ravago and Gilliland; she doesn't bestow approval on just anyone. "She said years later that we were the first restaurant she knew of in the whole country that was attempting to do the real food of Mexico," he says. "And that's why she took us under her wing. So as a result we began to hone our concept and became purists. I think we were half afraid of her, too. She's very strong in her convictions."
Gilliland and Ravago joined Kennedy in Mexico, where Ravago worked in nearly every restaurant cited in Cuisines of Mexico. "We went through the book. At the restaurants and places where she got those recipes, I would work in that restaurant, at least for a day," Ravago says. "We had a van with her and Tom in the front seat and me in a director's chair in the back sliding all over. There were no seats in the back of the van because we were picking up things for the restaurant, artifacts and things." Before heading off to Mexico, Ravago took a quick crash course with Kennedy in Manhattan, where she was living before she moved to Mexico. "I'd pick things I wasn't familiar with, and that's what she taught me," he recalls. "Then we went to Mexico, so I could actually see the food and talk about it. She was fascinated by what we were doing at the restaurant. It was the first commercial establishment she had gone to that actually took the time to work with chiles and things, not buying the powdered chiles, but separating them, and doing real mole."
Business began to take off, and soon enough, they realized that a restaurant that seated only 50 people wasn't big enough for them. "I was in Austin one weekend visiting friends, and got lost and made a wrong turn and came across this location," Gilliland says about the place on North Loop where Fonda San Miguel still stands today.
Somehow it makes perfect sense that Fonda San Miguel was found by mistake. On paper, the idea of Fonda San Miguel, which opened in 1975, doesn't make sense. Two admittedly hard-working young men who had run a 50-seat restaurant are about to run a 200-seat one while "educating" Texans that what they thought was Mexican food isn't Mexican food at all. They ask them to pay fine dining prices for it. They want to fill their restaurant with classy Mexican art that makes for a memorable atmosphere but certainly doesn't minimize their financial outlay. Their restaurant is located in what was then Austin's northern outreaches. Even today, North Loop, with its outmoded buildings, has the eerie ability to make you think you've returned to the Seventies. "Before, that place had been Mi Casa Es Su Casa," Sharpe says about the Fonda San Miguel building. "It had failed, and everybody said, 'Well, that's because it's in that neighborhood and nobody is going to drive up there to go to a restaurant' and they proved them wrong."
The lean years immediately after Fonda San Miguel opened were very lean years. Gilliland would race to the bank every morning to deposit the previous evening's money to make sure the checks they were writing wouldn't bounce. An investor once told Gilliland that Fonda San Miguel is proof beyond a doubt that there's a God. Ahmad Modoni worked there from 1975 until 1982. He grew up in Iran, learned French as a second language, came to America to learn English, and ended up at Fonda San Miguel, where everyone spoke Spanish. He now owns Manuel's with his business partner Greg Koury, who also used to work at Fonda. "I was wondering why people, they didn't come to this restaurant," he says now, 20 years after he quit in order to open Manuel's. "And another thing was, you watch the public come in, they look at the menu and this beautiful building and the whole staff is trained very well, and they look at the menu, six tables out of 10, they got up and left because they could not understand what Mexican food was all about.
"I remember, I'm serious, I'm not joking with you, I remember back in one of the nights when I was bussing tables, I put the chips and hot sauce down and one of the gentlemen at the table asked me, 'What is this Guatemala?' And he was referring to guacamole. With my broken English, I would tell them, 'No, it's not Guatemala, it's guacamole, and it's made with avocados, etc., etc., etc.'"
Gilliland and Ravago didn't serve chips and salsa when they first opened Fonda San Miguel. This was a problem. Gilliland remembers that "people would come in and look and say, 'All right, where's the Mexican food?' or they would say, 'Where are the combination plates?' Or, 'Seafood? Huh?' But we stuck to our guns." A certain slight concession had to be made, however. Texans refused to believe that chips and salsa would not be put down on the table as soon as they sat down for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Mexicans do not begin their meals with chips and salsa, so there was no reason for diners at Fonda San Miguel to do so, either (although now, weirdly enough, enterprising Mexican restaurateurs in tourist areas will serve chips and salsa). "And we got no end of complaint about that," Gilliland says. "Diana Kennedy told us not to do it, and so we kind of didn't, but then one day we said, 'You know, this is really hurting,' so we did." Diana Kennedy's name was listed on the menu as a consultant to the restaurant: the official stamp of approval.
Virginia B. Wood, the Chronicle's Food editor, who was the restaurant's first pastry chef, says, "In the beginning, they were real purists," she says, "and then after about two years of being purists and really struggling, they made some changes and started to do chips and hot sauce and nachos. The nachos were black bean nachos and they weren't like you find in Tex-Mex places, but they were nachos. And they got in trouble with Diana about that. She didn't like it, but they had to make a living, and she was making a living doing something else.
"People were also accustomed to eating pralines or rainbow sherbet after their Mexican food, and so of course Miguel had decreed that we weren't having pralines or rainbow sherbet." They did serve a flan recipe given to the restaurant by a customer. It's still on the menu, described, uniquely, as an "almond flan recipe from Ana Rosa, a very pretty woman & a friend of ours from Guanajuato."
Both Wood and Modoni point out that Gilliland and Ravago had the right instincts about choosing Austin as the home for Fonda San Miguel. A great number of their customers may not have understood what they were up to, but there were enough adventurous eaters in Austin to support the restaurant. The genius of Fonda San Miguel is that Ravago and Gilliland thoroughly educated Austinites about their cuisine without exactly letting them know they were being educated. They were being given an experience. "They had this very small, devoted following," Wood says. "Lots of old hippies, people who'd traveled in Mexico who thought that the food was just incredible, and it was all word of mouth." The UT faculty were also early, enthusiastic supporters. "The beauty of the Austin market," Modoni says, "is that as soon as people find out that you're serving quality food, with good pricing and good service, they come back to you and they're very loyal. They're extremely loyal."
It didn't hurt when Texas Monthly placed a star next to its review of Fonda San Miguel. Restaurant reviews are a staple of nearly every general interest publication, but that hasn't always been true. "We were, for quite a while, the only game in town, so getting a write-up in the restaurant reviews was enormously important," says Sharpe, who didn't write the review of Fonda San Miguel but edited the restaurant reviews. "Tom told me back then that if a restaurant got a star in the magazine, the difference would be at least $1,000 of business a month just on that basis alone."
"People would literally come in with the magazine in their hand and point to something in the review and say, 'I want this,'" Wood recalls.
The restaurant became so successful that by 1985, Gilliland and Ravago decided to open a Fonda San Miguel in Houston in a shopping center on Westheimer and West Alabama Road in between a Bookstop and a Whole Foods store. The economy in Houston was plummeting right about then, and Gilliland and Ravago both knew it. Restaurants in Houston were offering not two-for-one dinners but three-for-one specials. It was a city of 50-cent margaritas. "We thought we were immortal and we could rise above that," Gilliland says now. "We lost our butt. My wild-eyed idea was to have a contemporary Mexican décor, like you'd find in Mexico City, so that's what we did, and I thought it was really, really good-looking -- in its own way as good-looking as this restaurant -- but not what people wanted."
What people wanted was Austin's Fonda San Miguel, but in Houston. That's not what they got. "We just didn't have the business," Gilliland says, "and I wouldn't give up, and it got worse." They closed the Houston location, and had to declare bankruptcy in order to protect "the mother ship," as Gilliland says. "I think I learned more about how to run a restaurant in that six months, when it was failing, than I ever did. We couldn't keep anybody, so I was the manager, I was the bookkeeper, I was up at six in the morning, running to the bank at eight, doing all the books, doing the payroll, managing the restaurant, and closing it at midnight."
Fonda San Miguel survived that, too. But by 1996 -- the 30-year mark in their personal and business relationship -- Ravago and Gilliland decided that they needed a break from one another. Fonda sans Miguel: It seemed very strange to longtime customers. Diana Kennedy's field researcher Ricardo Muñoz commuted from Mexico for several months, but it wasn't a permanent solution and Muñoz ultimately recommended Roberto Santibañez. Ravago began cooking for Bertram's by Miguel (now the Clay Pit), a relatively short-lived venture, and then held a variety of cooking jobs, including that of executive chef at New York's Zocalo. He was wooed back to Austin by the executives of Balance Catering, a company that was unfortunately riding on the dot-com economy and closed within three months after Ravago's relocation. Meanwhile, Roberto Santibañez was cooking at Fonda, introducing new, less-traditional entrées that Fonda regulars eventually came to love.
After the catering job dissolved, Ravago called Gilliland because he knew that he would be aware of cooking jobs to be had in Austin. "So I said, 'Let's get together for coffee,'" Gilliland recalls. Roberto Santibañez was still the chef but had given notice that he was going to quit because, he says, "it was time to move on." Another chef, James Brockman, an Austinite who was a recent graduate of the French Culinary Institute, had already been hired. "So I offered Miguel the job of general manager," Gilliland says, "because I thought maybe his days had been 24/7 in the kitchen, because he's gregarious, that he would be good out in the front and he could still steer the kitchen somewhat."
Then Santibañez left, and Gilliland says that although Brockman was hard-working and conscientious, "you don't learn this cuisine in three months."
"I think what we had then was a little tension," Gilliland says. Brockman ultimately returned to a comfort food restaurant, Good Enough to Eat on New York's Upper West Side. "That gave Miguel more responsibility," Gilliland points out, "and I think he felt more comfortable taking the reins back, so he and I have spent four or five hours a week working on what we want to do now," like a new menu that's more in line with their original vision and a much-needed remodel of the kitchen.
It's hard to imagine Ravago as the general manager of Fonda San Miguel with someone else at the helm as executive chef. Rick Bayless and Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, the two women behind Food TV's Two Hot Tamales, are the most visible proponents of authentic Mexican cuisine in America. Bayless lives in Chicago, has two authentic Mexican restaurants there, several cookbooks, and a PBS show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time. The file Ravago uses to store the articles written about him and Fonda San Miguel is bulging, but the simple fact is that he's not a star chef, though he could have been one in different circumstances.
He was promoting authentic Mexican cuisine before Bayless or the Two Hot Tamales, and when not many people understood what he was serving. "It's a breeze when you're in the areas where the press is a lot stronger and powerful," Ravago says when asked why he hasn't pursued a fame-building career like Bayless has. So why doesn't he cook in a bigger media market? "You can go to New York and make $200,000 a year," he says, "and freeze. I don't want to live on the 30th floor, I want to walk out without having just a 6-foot balcony." Later, he acknowledges that "my big dream was to come back to Fonda San Miguel. This is my baby, I wanted it to succeed and be famous and to be talked about in other parts of the world."
National television stars or local legends, "from our own stubbornness," Gilliland says, he and Ravago have had an effect on the American palate. "What you began to see after Fonda had been open for a few years," Wood says, "was that other Mexican restaurants began to serve things like black beans, a variety of chiles, seafood, and other entrées indigenous to areas of Mexico they'd emigrated from. Fonda San Miguel really started that trend because they educated people about the differences in what the cuisines of Mexico could be."
"Fonda San Miguel has this energy by itself," Santibañez, the former Fonda chef, says. "It has an incredible personality, given by someone of course. I think you come into Fonda and if you take one piece of art off the wall and change it for another one, and put a tree in the middle or take it away and put in more light or less light, Fonda will still be Fonda."