A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip
In a simpler time, in a city that wasn’t overpopulated with cheap, cheerful and generally decent little restaurants, a casual new quasi-Mexican spot just off the Ossington strip wouldn’t need an elaborate origin story.
But this is not a simple time. The origin story for Fonda Lola, which opened last fall, has all the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me gravitas of a Hollywood old testament disaster flick. A highlight: Fonda Lola partners Andres Marquez (front of house) and Howard Dubrovsky (kitchen) did not merely take an eating trip or two to Mexico in the run-up the restaurant’s opening – or, God forbid, spend some real time there, like a year, say, and put in the hard work of really learning the cuisine. Instead, they conducted a pair of – their words – “culinary fact-finding missions,” as if Ban Ki-moon had personally written them letters of passage. One of these culinary fact-finding missions was to attend the wedding of the restaurant’s other partner, Ernesto Rodriguez, as it happens; the other was to eat and drink around Mexico City for a week.
Another tidbit, which has been swallowed whole and dutifully regurgitated around town in the last few months: Fonda Lola serves: “Traditional Aztec recipes inherited by Marquez from his anthropologist aunt.”
Which of the following Fonda Lola menu items do you think are “Traditional Aztec recipes”?:
a) the deep-fried panela cheese poppers;
b) the hand-held Caesar salad;
c) the jalapeno-candied bacon;
d) the anatomically-correct special-order churros that have their own instagram hashtag (it’s #churropenis, in case you’re interested) and come shaped like a gentleman’s reproductive bits?
The downside to this sort of origin story, to the sort of empty hype that’s endemic to new city restaurants of late, is that it sets expectations irreconcilably beyond the grasp of reality. It’s doubly disappointing when, as with the case of Fonda Lola, the restaurant is actually pretty good.
Fonda Lola is cheap, and friendly. The service, run by Mr. Marquez, is charming; he has a habit of describing dishes as: “The best thing you’re gonna eat this year,” and “better than crack.” (I’m pretty sure I know where Fonda Lola’s hype machine spends its evenings.) The food is tasty, for the most part. A night at Fonda Lola can even be a little fun.
Mr. Marquez, who is 31, emigrated from Mexico City when he was a teenager. He worked most recently as director of operations and partner with the Milagro restaurant mini-chain.
In Mexico, a fonda is a simple spot that serves home cooking. Fonda Lola’s partners have taken that simple approach to heart.
The little room feels as though it was thrown together on a shoestring: the tables are bare wood and tiny; the walls corrugated metal. The crowd is young and happy and almost exclusively female, if my two visits there were any indication. (Did I mention that Mr. Marquez is charming? Where most of us cast mere shadows, Mr. Marquez casts a trail of swoon.)
Mr. Dubrovsky, 34, is best-known as a television chef. When I wrote a few years ago about L.A.B., Mr. Dubrovsky’s short-lived vegetarian/modernist spot on College Street , I described him as, “long on ideas and moxie, but short on actual restaurant cooking experience.” That holds true today.
What saves Fonda Lola’s kitchen is the simplicity of its intentions; the cooking isn’t meant for over-thinking. That candied bacon, though. It is quick-cured with maple syrup and jalapenos, so that the smoke and porkiness and buttery fat – the bacon strips are barely rendered – are layered with sweet and tongue-searing spice.
I wanted to hate that bacon for its pre-diluvian, kegger-at-the-frat house reductiveness. I couldn’t hate it. Only my shame kept me from ordering a second round.
That Caesar salad was also good. It’s a taco, essentially, made with butter lettuce instead of a tortilla, filled with chopped romaine and dressing and with Parmesan cheese and more of that bacon candy.
The trout aguachile – ceviche, effectively, but with far more than the usual spice and an inch-deep puddle of lime juice – is one of the tastier ceviches I’ve had of late.
Mr. Dubrovsky’s baby kale and arugula salad was excellent. (Kale and arugula were common ingredients at ancient Aztec juice cleanses and conscious uncoupling parties, I am certain.) His kitchen dresses them with a mix of agave syrup and lime, tosses the leaves with toasted pumpkin seeds and crunchy, juicy chayote batons, and then finishes the works with a scattering of softly floral hibiscus dust.
Other dishes were humdrum. The guacamole is whipped smooth here and hadn’t been lightened with enough acidity either time I tried it: it tasted like avocado-flavoured mayonnaise.
There’s a fish dish, made with cod both times I had it, that pairs beautifully-seared pieces of fillet with a thick, musky-tasting puree of sweet potatoes. These did not work well together. It seemed like a waste of cod.
As for the tacos al pastor, that epically delicious mess of meat marinated with toasted chiles and spices and then slow-cooked for hours and wrapped with pineapple in warm tortillas – Fonda Lola’s tacos al pastor are nothing like that. Mr. Dubrovsky doesn’t slow-cook his meat. He quickly sears it. It’s Mexican food, but with a family-size tin of bland thrown in.
The churros are very good; the caramelized goat’s milk cajeta sauce they come with is even better. If you want the ones that come shaped like man bits, you need to special-order them 24 hours ahead. I am glad of that.
When I spoke this week with Mr. Marquez I asked him about all those historic Aztec recipes. The restaurant hasn’t really started with them, he said, adding that they’ll begin appearing in earnest in coming weeks.
He told me that the highlights will include a recipe they’re working on for a raw, vegan sort of mole that the Aztecs once used as a marinade for human sacrifices.
I have no idea how much of that last sentence is true; I do know for certain that it gets my mierda-detector jangling.
And I know that at the back of Fonda Lola’s cramped little dining room, Mr. Marquez has installed a life-sized cardboard cutout of The Most Interesting Man in the World, the charming but epically mendacious man from those ubiquitous Dos Equis beer commercials.
So stay thirsty, my friends. And maybe a little bit skeptical too.