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Growing Fonda Chain Excels in Classic Mexican Recipes at New Tribeca Outpost

Growing Fonda Chain Excels in Classic Mexican Recipes at New Tribeca Outpost

During frequent visits to my hometown of Austin two decades ago, Fonda San Miguel used to be one of my favorite places to eat. Founded in 1975 in a then secluded residential area on the north side of the city, the restaurant was designed to resemble a colonial hacienda, with glazed ceramic figures flanking immense carved doors, a relaxing courtyard open to the sky, and multiple beautiful dining rooms . In my experience, it was one of the few restaurants in Texas that focused not on Tex-Mex cuisine, but on regional recipes of Mexico.

The epic entrance to Fonda San Miguel in Austin, where Chef Roberto Santibañez cut his eye teeth.

At the time, Fonda San Miguel’s chef was Mexico City-born Roberto Santibañez. He then made a name for himself in New York City at Rosa Mexicano, wrote several cookbooks and eventually started his own chain called Fonda. Open since 2009, it now has branches in Chelsea, Park Slope and Tribeca – the latter appeared just three months ago on Duane Street near West Broadway, and the subject of this review.

The decor recalls some of the charm of Fonda San Miguel. Behind the bar and between the stands are perforated metal screens with folk motifs. A vaulted ceiling gives the room the feel of a railroad dining car of yesteryear; orange benches flanked by small tables hug cream walls, while a trestle table in the center hosts groups of revelers.

Black awning, entrance, with tables on the sidewalk on either side.

Fonda Tribeca exterior just before sunset.

A darkened dining room with a bar to the right and tables to the left.

The interior features perforated metal screens and dramatic lighting.

The tortilla soup ($10) is unforgettable. It’s finished at the table with a broth of the deepest brown, poured over stiff strips of crispy tortilla topped with slices of avocado. There are no pale spongy cubes of chicken breast—just you, the flavorful broth, and the crunch. Sitting outside on a hot summer night, the Watermelon Salad ($12) might be your best bet, sweet red cubes tossed with cukes and fresh, rubbery white cheese. A shake of sea salt accentuates the sweetness of the melon.

Red and white salad in a blue bowl viewed from the side.

Watermelon salad, with cucumbers and springy white cheese.

An invisible hand pours broth into a tangle of fried tortilla strips.

The unforgettable tortilla soup.

There’s also a ceviche, which is actually more of the consistency of a Sonoran or Sinaloan aguachile, with its invigorating pink liquid, which you’ll probably drink when the raw tuna and baby shrimp are exhausted. (Though I wish it had been served with salt, as is done in the Sinaloan coastal towns—and on the Jersey Shore at La Valentina in Long Branch.) Sure, there’s a guac crushed into the usual molcajete—most Mexican restaurants are a good ones – but here the creamy and thick green stuff is almost outdone by the warm tortilla chips that come alongside.

Ultimately, when it came to appetizers, I felt compelled to compare today’s Fonda to the Fonda San Miguel from the turn of the century. The menus have at least a few dishes in common. If memory is right, the enchiladas suizas were pretty much the same in both places, with two types of cheese (hence “suizas” or Swiss). A green tomatillo sauce adds tartness. Santibañez has a thing for duck, and in Austin duck chiladas were smothered in a creamy sauce tasting of green herbs and chiles. It became my favorite dish there.

The equally picturesque zarape de pato ($15) at Fonda Tribeca is just as delicious. Named after a colorful woven scarf, the dish consists of tortillas that cover a filling, like free-form enchiladas; in this case, sumptuous amounts of duck. The sauce of roasted tomatoes and chipotle peppers results in a fluorescent orange that shows off the dark flavor of duck. Although listed as an app, it can easily serve as an appetizer.

Two enchiladas smothered in green sauce on an orange patterned plate.

Enchiladas with duck at Fonda San Miguel.

A square cast iron pan full of pieces of pork.

Fonda’s carnitas come with charro beans on the side.

I’m never one to complain about the size of main dishes, but Fonda Tribecas are usually huge and paired with rice, fresh tortillas, and beans. These entrees include renditions of Mexican cuisine’s greatest hits, and carnitas ($26) is a prime example. Just like it’s made in Michoacán, the rich confit comes in large chunks that sizzle in a cast-iron skillet loaded with raw onions. Salsa verde and blue corn tortillas complete the picture—almost as good, in my opinion, as the signature carnitas Denisse Lina Chavez once made at El Atoradero, though that version lacks the slight gooeyiness.

Other entrees include achiote marinated and grilled chicken tossed with Chihuahua cheese and topped with caramelized onions, in a tip of the hat for Tex-Mex cuisine. There is also a chile relleno filled with spinach; chicken enchiladas in a sweet Oaxacan mole negro; and a Yucatán shrimp adobado that finds the herb-encrusted creatures atop a cliff of green rice, with a light black bean sauce flowing below like a rising tide.

A glass with a red herbal rim and a slice of watermelon on the rim.

Fonda Tribeca’s watermelon margarita.

A bottle of wine in an ice bucket with a plain white label.

The dry and sharp Monte Xanic rosé.

As for drinks, there are cervezas, strong cocktails (most refreshing: a watermelon margarita, $16), and a short wine list from which a friend and I selected a grenache rosé from Ensenada’s Monte Xanic ($47). It was drier and sharper than most rosés, and the perfect foil for the assertive Mexican dishes at Fonda Tribeca. For dessert, don’t miss the lemon tres leches cake ($9), which is nicely sprinkled with slivered almonds and topped with a rich ivory sauce that tastes a bit like rum.

Fonda Tribeca is certainly one of the better upscale Mexican restaurants in the city, but rather than emulate modern Mexico City fare, it opts to showcase real versions of historic recipes. One of the greatest pleasures for me, more than 20 years after I first admired his cooking, was enjoying the work of a chef.

A square of yellowish cake with berries around it and whipped cream and almonds on top.

Tres leches cake.

139 Duane St, New York, NY 10013