Fonda San Miguel: Forty Years of Food and Art Review
By Tom Gilliland
A Lavish Visit with an Austin Classic
Can it get any more Austin hipster than movie director Robert Rodriguez writing the forward to your cookbook?
That's right, folks, the creator of the Spy Kids movie franchise and Grindhouse eats at Fonda San Miguel every week. Apparently, he loves the puerco pebil, which now I have to try.
For forty years, Fonda San Miguel has served interior Mexican cuisine, happily operating in the North Loop neighborhood of West Austin. I have eaten there over the years, and when paging through this cookbook, it grew clear to me that owners Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ragavo were ahead of their time.
Austin in 1975 was a cozy college town of around 300,000 people. Black beans, tomatillos and Mexican chocolate were not available like they are today, so many of the basic kitchen items had to be imported. The menu is traditional Mexican cooking, inspired by food writer Diana Kennedy. This is not your usual Tex-Mex enchiladas and tacos fare. Elegant, authentic fare comes at a cost, so eating here has always been a bit pricey.
Never shy of selling the benefits of his restaurant, Mr. Gilliland's pride shines throughout this latest edition, Fonda San Miguel: Forty Years of Food & Art. You may not know this, but the University of Texas Press has been outdoing itself recently with their coffee-table, hardcover cookbooks. The book is beautifully photographed, taking the reader on a journey through the restaurant. It begins with the cover, a display of the restaurant's front with its majestic wooden doors ajar, inviting you inside.
Readers will enjoy the chapter on "the Fonda San Miguel story". It's a good story!
Turning the pages, we stop at their epic bar. It's stocked to the gills with adventuresome tequilas and mezcal. The book includes Lucinda Hutson's sangrita recipe. A world expert on tequila, Hutson's book Viva Tequila!, also from University of Texas Press, is a must-have.
Going back to Rodriguez's amusing forward, he writes that now any fan of the restaurant can to cook the food themselves during those dark hours when the place is closed. He's correct. The book is stuffed with over one hundred recipes. Lots of the menu is printed right here, from the red and green salsas to the carne asada. If you can acquire Mexican chocolate, you can make their Pollo en Mole Poblano. Recreating their Red Snapper, Veracruz-style, would be a real presentation.
I must make their recipe for Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings' Cake). And the sangrias look like the perfect refreshment for any hot summer party in Texas.
In another chapter, readers take in their famous Hacienda Sunday Brunch Buffet, which has been running continuously since 1985. For many in Austin, it's church.
If you've never been to the restaurant, let me explain -- you're definitely not just anywhere. The place abounds with ornate Mexican furniture, hand crafted in Mexico, as well as lovely paintings, tableware and ornaments. If you've ever visited San Miguel de Allende, you will appreciate the artistic inspiration. Along with the recipes, the beautiful decor is photographed, printed and arranged to walk you through the restaurant, page by page.
The book features a section with recipes of basic preparations like chicken broth and various standard Mexican rices. There's an all-important glossary of the esotaric food items, just in case you do not know what huitacoche is. There's a handy list of mail-order places for Mexican food products, and as a bonus, the writers throw in a list of their favorite "must visit" restaurants around the country.
Sopa seca, or "dry soup", is a flavorful pasta dish that is often served in place of rice, especially in the northern states of Mexico. Fideos are coils of vermicelli-like pasta. This recipe comes from Miguel's maternal grandmother, Guadalupe Velásquez, a native of Sonora. Miguel remembers that she garnished it with Mexican crema and sometimes omitted the chiles when preparing the dish for small children. It is always a hit when Miguel includes it on the Hacienda Sunday Brunch Buffet.
- 1 7-ounce package Mexican fideo or vermicelli
- 4 tablespoons safflower oil or other vegetable oil
- 1 medium white onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 large tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves, with 1 teaspoon reserved for garnish
- 4 cups Basic Chicken Broth
- 2 to 4 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, chopped (optional)
- Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
- ½ cup sour cream for garnish
- ½ cup shredded panela cheese for garnish
In a 4-quart saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Break the fideo coils into 1-inch pieces and cook until golden brown, about 7 minutes.
Add the onion, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth and chiles.
Reduce heat to simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is tender. Check seasonings, adding salt and pepper if necessary. Serve on small plates or bowls topped with a tablespoon of sour cream. Sprinkle with the shredded cheese and reserved cilantro.
Serves 4 to 6.