After 30 years, Miguel Ravago and Tom Gilliland offer a cookbook as challenging and fascinating as their menu
On Nov. 25, one of Austin's most beloved and respected culinary institutions celebrates its first 30 years. Fonda San Miguel is the result of an adventure that owners Miguel Ravago and Tom Gilliland embarked on, without the slightest clue that three decades later it would have made a tremendous impact in the dining habits of an entire city, and even the nation.
Opening Fonda was truly a monumental challenge back in 1975. Their goal of bringing a different experience to a town well known for its popular Tex-Mex dishes was met with resistance and disdain at the time. Both Ravago and Gilliland remember customers walking out of the restaurant upon reading the menu and not finding their familiar combo plates, or pitching a fit because the restaurant didn't serve chips and salsa. Not discouraging easily, the longtime friends persevered. With help from their friend Diana Kennedy, well known for her passion in documenting and preserving traditional Mexican recipes, they learned more about regional Mexican cuisine and forged a working relationship and friendship that has lasted through today.
Finding the right ingredients to execute the kind of dishes that Ravago was intent on cooking was even more of a challenge. When I moved to Austin in the mid-Eighties, it was hard to find Mexican groceries, produce, spices, or even chiles. In the late Seventies, it was practically impossible, and Ravago and Gilliland had to import most of their ingredients from Mexico. As demand grew, local wholesalers, produce companies, and groceries began to stock more and more of these ingredients. Today, many of the ingredients can be easily found in grocery stores all over Austin. Thanks to Rava go and Gilliland's pioneering efforts, the regional foods of Mexico gained an increasingly growing following and eventually expanded to restaurants around Austin, the state, and the nation. And while some claim that "Interior" Mexican food is "snobbish," nothing could be further from the truth. Regional Mexican dishes may be sophisticated, diverse, and perhaps exotic to many, but their roots sit firmly in the ancient cultures and family traditions of the everyday people of Mexico.
Ask anyone who has dined at Fonda San Miguel, and they will tell you one of the main reasons they return is the ambience and the beautiful building. Walking through that huge hand-carved wooden door into Fonda's lush courtyard feels like traveling through time and space to an old hacienda in Central Mexico. Gilliland's impressive art collection is as important to the whole concept as the food, and it includes paintings by many of Mexico's most celebrated painters. The handpainted wall details by Jesús "Chucho" Moreno, the handmade tiles by renowned Mexican ceramist Gorky González, and the numerous items of Mexican folk art are a few of the elements that add to the general effect. Fonda is indeed one of Austin's most beautiful and unique restaurants.
Over the last 30 years, Ravago and Gilliland have seen their share of heartache, changes, hard work, and ultimately success in keeping their dream alive, while providing Austinites with an education on the traditional foods of Mexico that over the years has turned into true love. In celebration of this milestone, Ravago and Gilliland have released a long-awaited cookbook, Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food and Art, written by the Chronicle's own Virginia B. Wood, Fonda San Miguel alumna and former pastry chef. The book combines heirloom recipes from the Ravago family repertoire as well as Interior Mexican standards codified by Diana Kennedy, including many of Fonda's most popular dishes and Sunday Hacienda brunch favorites. It includes color photographs to bring the recipes to life, and emphasizes Fonda's artful side with reproductions of many of the pieces from Gilliland's vast art collection. In fact, details of actual architectural aspects and décor of the building are embedded throughout the book's design, capturing the essence of the restaurant.
Ravago and Gilliland now find themselves the center of a whirlwind of activity. Among their many appearances to promote the book around Texas and the nation, they have recently participated in the Texas Book Festival and were featured at the A Literary Palate dinner in San Antonio along with three other cookbook writers from Texas. They have booksignings and cooking classes scheduled through next February, and the book is also available for purchase at the restaurant, where it is selling briskly.
To cap an amazing anniversary year, Ravago and Gilliland plan another first for Fonda: They will be open on Thanksgiving from noon to 7pm, featuring a Mexican Thanksgiving menu ($38.95), as well as their regular menu. While Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Mexico, Ravago will prepare Mexican holiday classics like pavo en mole (turkey in mole sauce), ensalada de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve salad), and budín de elote (fresh corn pudding), among others. If you're looking to do something completely different this Thanksgiving, you cannot go wrong here. Make your reservations in advance.
Friday, Nov. 11: Breed & Co. on 29th, 11am
Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food and Art Booksignings
Friday, Nov. 11: Breed & Co. West Lake, 2:15pm
Saturday, Nov. 12: Borders on Research, 2pm
Nov. 19: Borders Westgate, 2pm
Nov. 26: Barnes & Noble West Lake, 2pm
Dec. 3: Spicewood Vineyards, 2-5pm
Dec. 10: Barnes & Noble Round Rock, 2pm
Feb. 24: Central Market, North Lamar, TBA