Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
It was not long after the now-deceased Bumpy's Tex-Mex on Bowman closed its doors that another Mexican establishment slid in to take its place. But with the coming of the new Fonda Mexican Cuisine, you'd be wrong in assuming that we're just seeing another mediocre, uninspired take on Americanized Mexican dishes. In Little Rock, it seems that a new Mexican restaurant crops up about once a week and it's understandable if you're less enthusiastic about the opening of another.
But Fonda, in fact, is probably something worth getting excited about. After perusing through its menu, you'll soon realize, Fonda isn't Tex-Mex. It's got a bit more authenticity than its predecessor, and while it still manages to maintain that sense of familiarity we Americans have come to enjoy in our Mexican options, there's enough intrigue and originality to keep your taste buds on their toes, so to speak.
Fonda's menu is rather petite, especially compared to the novel-like constructions you might find at other Mexican establishments. A small handful of appetizers, a dozen or so entrees. You'll find dishes such as pollo con mole, which uses authentic family recipes, the mole a conglomeration of "nineteen ingredients in a silky sauce." There's guisado de Puerco, pork shoulder diced and simmered in an oven-roasted tomatillo sauce. The "chef's favorite" utilizes slow-roasted lamb, pulled from the bone and stewed in a chipotle broth.
You'll begin with a complimentary serving of warm salsa and freshly fried corn chips. The salsa is a blend of stewed tomato, jalapeño, and onion. It's not the first warm salsa we've been served, but this brand is certainly in the minority among local Mexican restaurants. It was flavorful, bright, and hearty, but we would have liked a bit more spice. Still, the chips were flawless. They cracked delicately when bitten into but managed to maintain enough resilience to support the weight of our sizable scoops of salsa.
We were first enticed by the queso fundido ($8.38), also labeled on the menu as "the people's choice." Knowing that "the people" are rarely misleading in their choices, we went with it. The appetizer takes a substantial serving of shredded Chihuahua cheese — a soft, white Mexican variety — and throws it on a scorching cast iron plate. To this, diners can add chorizo; mild, roasted Poblano pepper strips or sauteed mushrooms. The whole dish is served alongside freshly made flour tortillas. The entire process is a beautiful thing to behold. Hot plate meets cheese, the soft white substance gives way under the heat, melting and bubbling as it arrives at the table. It quickly forms a thin layer of slightly burned fried cheese at the base, a crispy, caramelized layer that's not to be overlooked. As you eat, you simply scrape the contents of the plate up with a spoon and spread on a tortilla or corn chip. It's greasy, salty and absolutely splendid. We opted for chorizo, which imparted a wonderful spicy note to the cool creaminess of the cheese.
We next decided upon the guisado de res ($13.99). We're particularly fond of guisados or Mexican stews. When done right, the slowly cooked meats are rendered soft and tender, and, bathed in a blend of peppers, tomatoes and other spices, the meats are extremely flavorful when ready to be served. Fonda's version uses chunks of stewed sirloin in a roasted tomato, chipotle and bay leaf blend. The results were marvelous — everything you'd expect from a fine guisado. The stew surrounds a mound of soft, flavorful rice. The concoction may be enjoyed on tortillas, scooped up in corn chips, or simply alone on a spoon.
Our side of black beans also deserves mention. These were prepared in a manner similar to other "refried" beans — soft, slightly mashed, and probably laden with lard for flavor and richness. They were simply wonderful, but we only wished we would have been served more of them.
Next, we sampled the "Razorback Burrito" ($10.78). The burrito was (not unexpectedly) filled with a generous helping of shredded pork shoulder, white cheese, more of those wonderful black beans, seasoned rice, and a fresh pico de gallo. The meat itself was excellent — slow-roasted, dripping with rich, porky flavor, and quite tender. The inclusion of freshly diced tomato, onion, cilantro, and jalapeño was a smart move, as it countered the rich meat and salty beans and cheese perfectly.
We ended with one of their few dessert offerings, the stuffed churros with chocolate sauce ($4.99). These long, star-shaped strands of fried dough get filled with a ribbon of hot dulce de leche. Ours were a bit over-cooked, the dough coming to us a bit too hard and crunchy. The accompanying chocolate sauce was a small drizzle of generic store-bought chocolate syrup. While they were edible, by this point in the meal we expected better.
One thing is clear, though, the folks in the kitchen at Fonda are confident in their ability to recreate the flavors of Mexico. It's undoubtedly an improvement on what was being served by prior tenants. One can only hope that Fonda finds its place in a city that is already seemingly over-run with Mexican options. But truth be told, only a rare few are as tasty as Fonda.