The Early Word: Fonda Restaurant, Upscale Mexican in Brooklyn

Pork adobo with pickled onions and black beans--could have been delicious, but it needed salt!
Pork adobo with pickled onions and black beans--could have been delicious, but it needed salt!

The tail end of Seventh Avenue in South Park Slope is usually a sleepy place--heated banh mi wars notwithstanding--so it was surprising to see a crowd of people gathered outside Fonda Restaurant last night. It turned out that there was an hour and a half wait for a table at the newly opened upscale Mexican spot, an interval that was spent drinking beer elsewhere.

From the line outside, you'd think Fonda was the coming of Rick Bayless to Brooklyn. Actually, it's chef Roberto Santibanez's first spot of his own. Santibanez is a native of Mexico City, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and was the culinary director of the Rosa Mexicana chain from 2002-2007.

Duck zarape in tomato-habanero cream sauce. The black bits are fried ancho chile
Duck zarape in tomato-habanero cream sauce. The black bits are fried ancho chile

The connection to Rosa Mexicana is made abundantly clear when the server pushes the guacamole (ZOMG served in a molcajete!) and asks if this is "your first time" at the restaurant. If so, she would like to explain that the margaritas are margaritas. It's certainly not her fault, but the up-selling and pretentious explanation of a (very straightforward) menu are restaurant foibles that should be quarantined in Manhattan.

All in all, the "modern-Mexican" food at Fonda is tasty and well-executed, but seems a bit too careful, calculated to please non-Latin diners (although chiles are deployed with skill). That's not necessarily a terrible thing--if the food tastes good, the food tastes good--but Fonda could have used more oomph, less emphasis on guacamole. Still, with dishes like hazelnut mole, it seems like Santibanez is trying to bring upscale Mexican out of the margarita-mill ghetto.

Give in to the $9 guacamole, and get a heaping portion (ask for it spicy), with small, warm corn tortillas. Or chose the duck zarape appetizer: Braised, shredded duck sandwiched between two tortillas and doused in a roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce that could have been spicier.

Of the main dishes, the bowl of Mexican-style pork adobo (pork braised in chile sauce, not the vinegary concoction of the Philippines) is very fine, with tender hunks of pork shoulder in a sticky, earthy mulatto chile sauce. But last night it was way under-seasoned, and benefited from a salt infusion donated from a margarita glass. "Marco Pollo" is a chicken dish (ha) that at least half the diners were ordering--a reddish stew of achiote-braised breast, with another roasted tomato-habanero sauce, but minus the cream that dulls the flavor in the duck dish. In this incarnation, that sauce really pops with the floral, dangerously sweet flavor of the habaneros.

Prices are relatively fair, about $14 for an entree, $9 for a generously portioned appetizer.

Fonda Comida Mexicana 434 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn 718-369-3144


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