Better known for foie gras than frijoles, acclaimed chef and restaurateur Michael Lachowicz has a new culinary endeavor that’s a radical departure from the fine French dining that has earned him a reputation for excellence on the North Shore. For one thing, it’s Mexican. For another, he plans to pretty much stay out of the kitchen.
The idea to open a Mexican restaurant, Lachowicz said, was born during the pandemic as his appreciation surged for the talented and loyal team members, most of Mexican descent, who remained by his side.
“This is a kind of thank you,” he said. “It’s a love letter to my staff. They all have been with me for so long, and the last piece of that puzzle fell into place over the pandemic. As it started to wane, they were all still there.”
Lachowicz floated the concept of a Mexican eatery to his team in 2020 and they responded enthusiastically, none more so than 27-year-old Carlos Cahue, then Aboyer sous chef.
Cahue took the lead on developing the menu with guidance and input from Miguel Escobar and Sergio Angel, longtime George Trois Group partners.
During the long days of the shutdown, the three began refining their grandmothers’ recipes, which showcased flavors from the Michoacan, Guerrero and Nuevo Leon regions of Mexico.
“Over the course of the year Carlos presented 33 items,” said Lachowicz. “We honed it down to the 16 greatest hits.”
Cahue now commands the kitchen at Fonda as chef de cuisine, turning out uniquely flavorful dishes like his Chile Relleno con Pipian De Hoja Santa, which Lachowicz points to as one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
We sampled it on a recent visit and discovered the poblano pepper, stuffed with delicately spiced ground beef, also contained the surprising crunch of almonds and sweet bites of dried fruit. It is served atop a savory green mole. My companion polished it off with relish, grumbling that his own abuela would have served him two.
Priced at or below $22, entrées are modestly sized, with sides available a la carte. There are no cheese-blanketed gut bombs here. Lachowicz said the enchiladas, for example, are not the familiar Betty Crocker-style casserole dish some diners might expect to see.
“The enchiladas are not draped with sauce or drowned out with otherwise loud ingredients or flavor components. The whole idea here is that there is integrity in the tortilla and there is integrity in the chicken. There’s a nuance in the way this dish should be consumed.”
A restrained preparation also allows simple ingredients to shine in the Pescado Pibil, an adobe-glazed black bass filet cooked inside a wrapped banana leaf. Peel open the bright green packet, and the fish is moist and tender, accompanied by pickled red onion and a generous smear of emulsified tomatillo salsa that’s perfect for dipping.
Other menu options include chicken in a red mole sauce (available nightly in limited quantities), meatballs in a chipotle broth and carne asada. Tacos, priced between $5 and $7, can be ordered individually and come in five tantalizing varieties.
The Gobernador contains shrimp, poblano and Manchego cheese, while the Quesabirria features chile-braised lamb shoulder and queso Oaxaca. Come spring, Lachowicz plans to sell some of these tacos, even into the wee hours, through a walk-up window on the restaurant’s Clark Street side – happy news for college students and other hungry night owls.
The pace of service at Fonda was leisurely when we visited, with no huge urgency to turn over tables, and the staff was friendly and accommodating. We waited a bit for our drinks, which arrived after the appetizer, but no judgments during opening week.
The margarita, priced at $14, was pleasingly tart rather than cloyingly sweet and had a welcome hint of smokiness. There are plenty of other Mexican-themed cocktails to choose from, including the temptingly pink Mujer Perfecto Paloma containing mezcal, grapefruit juice, agave and Aperol. The menu also features a full selection of mocktails, beer and wine.
Chips and salsa are not complimentary, but worth the $4 splurge. They are lightly salted and crunchy with a satisfying heft that can stand up to a side of guacamole.
Food is foremost in any restaurant, but Fonda’s stylish interior with its high vaulted wood ceiling and rustic wall of exposed brick also deserves a mention. Handwoven bamboo lighting fixtures, wood bead wall lamps and striking chandeliers provide illumination and visual interest. Artwork includes vividly colored wall murals and other decorative elements reportedly crafted by artisans from Mexico.
The main dining room offers seating for 80, plus an 11-seat bar. Conversation was easy at our two-top, even with a full dining room. A hallway past the kitchen connects the main dining room with the cantina side of the restaurant, which features its own street entrance, another 20-seat bar and additional seating for 40 guests.
If a trip to sunny Ixtapa isn’t in the cards this winter, a visit to Fonda Cantina, with its vibrantly hued interior, warm spices and earthy flavors, just might provide a much-needed serotonin boost.
Fonda Cantina, 1735 Benson Ave. Reservations accepted online or call 224-714-2866. Open from 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday.
Interesting take on Fonda. I dined there last Saturday and was very disappointed.
The salsa (for which there was a charge as noted) was extremely small in portion but given that it was bland and served cold, the portion size became irrelevant. The guacamole was similarly bland and the Margaritas over-iced.
My date was unimpressed by the chicken enchiladas. We had high expectations for Fonda given the owner’s background at Aboyer and the dearth of good Mexican restaurants in the area. Those expectations were not fulfilled.