NEW YORK — On the East Coast, good Mexican food is often talked up like good pizza or falafel. A Mexican restaurant is sometimes just a step up from a fast food chain. Indeed, it’s long been a lament that there are few places in the Northeast to get exceptional Mexican food.
Fonda on Manhattan’s Avenue B helps change that. The neighborhood around Fonda still has much of the Puerto Rican flavor of its past. It’s affectionately referred to in Spanglish as “Louisada,” for Lower East Side. Fonda is moderately priced by New York standards, aiming more for repeat business than upscale tourists or what’s left of the tattered expense account crowd. Chef and owner Roberto Santibanez has another Fonda location in Brooklyn.
There are many great first impressions. A deep purple, tart, and salty hibiscus margarita; sopa de tortilla, a thick, smoky, rich blend of roasted tomato and chicken broth, with each spoonful a different combination of avocado, tortilla, Chihuahua cheese, and chicken; guacamole served with hand-pressed soft tortillas made from fresh masa, with chips and pasilla de Oaxaca salsa; the hint of epazote in the beans.
Some recipes originated in Santibanez’s grandmother’s kitchen in Mexico City, but the Fonda menu is elevated by the chef’s Le Cordon Bleu training in Paris, where he graduated with honors. He was executive chef at Henbury Estate in Cheshire, England, cooked for the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry, and is credited for reviving downtown Mexico City with his own restaurants. He was also an acclaimed executive chef of Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas, and culinary director of the popular Rosa Mexicano restaurant chain.
There’s a precise orchestration of ingredients in numerous sauces that give many entrees their distinction, notably salsa verde on crispy guajillo chicken and the avocado tomatillo sauce on marinated pork. The go-to dish for many regulars is enchilada Swiza, with pulled chicken in a rich tomatillo sauce of Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheeses.
Brunch items are no less daring. An omelet with roasted tomatillo sauce tastes entirely different from eggs with salsa verde and ranchera. It’s uncommon to find a menu this varied and discriminating at a neighborhood Mexican restaurant.
Cooking methods are in keeping with Santibanez’s book, “Truly Mexican,” which focuses on sauces as a gateway to Mexican cooking. “It’s so particular to our culture to know that the mole [sauce] has great texture,” Santibanez says. Mole, however, can be a challenge to the palate for some. The velvety black sauce on the enchiladas has the dominating taste of charred chilies, which Santibanez says some mistake as unintentionally burnt.
His French training taught him the value of a unified and codified cuisine. Typically, Mexican cooking has been taught dish-by-dish in home kitchens. The cuisine is more regional than national.
The vegetarian enchilada with cauliflower, roasted eggplant, zucchini, chayote, and potatoes isn’t on the menu just to satisfy vegetarians. “A lot of people say Mexicans don’t eat a lot of vegetables and salad,” says Santibanez. “I say, well it’s just in a different format — it’s often blended tomatillos and vegetables. We eat bowls of zucchini with corn and poblanos. All our sauces are made of vegetables . . . everything is diced.”
After-dinner coffee is available with goat caramel cajeta sauce. The hot chocolate is smooth rather than overtly sugary, more like the liquid form of the best chocolate bars you’ve ever eaten.
Artworks on the walls come from Santibanez’s own collection. His mother is an anthropologist who speaks five languages. The family traveled widely. “I was raised in an open-minded, diverse, worldly tradition. I had exposure to all the cultures in Mexico.”
Says Santibanez of Mexican cooks, “Our moms fed us really well. Even if those families are really poor, the beans are always perfectly cooked and well seasoned.”
As a result, says the chef, “being exposed to such cooking we become great cooks.”
Fonda,40 Ave. B, New York, 212-677-4096, and 434 7th Ave., Brooklyn, 718-369-3144, www.fondarestaurant.com.
Rachel Ellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.