Fed Man 55: Fonda San Miguel (39)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 39: Fonda San Miguel
2330 North Loop Blvd. 512-459-4121, www.fondasanmiguel.com.
Hours: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Bar opens at 5 p.m. Brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.28.12
Fonda San Miguel opened in 1975, the same year “Saturday Night Live” hit the air. I bring that up because the two are bound by a pop-culture universal truth: Everybody likes the original version best. If we could time-freeze Gilda, Chevy, Murray, Aykroyd and Belushi, we’d still be watching Roseanne Roseannadanna and Samurai Delicatessen to this very day. But we can’t. They grew older and moved on, some of them for good.
But a restaurant can recycle itself. A changing cast of kitchen characters can make the same dishes over and over for as long as the doors are open, feeding an audience that multiplies itself every few years. With Fonda, all it takes is producer Tom Gilliland and one original kitchen cast member to keep the show on the air, and that’s chef and co-owner Miguel Ravago, who still watches over the place via closed-circuit TV even when he’s at his house in Spain. Fonda’s stubborn preservation of its original material — cochinita pibil, rellenos, duck enchiladas — is at once its most endearing and frustrating quality. Because if the Not Ready for Prime Time Players had never left, we wouldn’t have had Eddie Murphy, Wayne’s World or Will Ferrell. And yet Fonda manages to fill its parking lot most every night.
The audience comes back for sopecitos ($12.95), a plate of nine canapes: three with  chopped fish, three with diced cactus and three with shrimp and guacamole. It’s a passed-plate at a cocktail party, with distinct simple flavors from each, conveyed on little boats of dense fried masa. They come back for Ceviche Las Brisas, an unpretentious dish of citrus-soaked whitefish with pico and chips, even though it’s too handsomely priced at $12.95.
The audience stays tuned for enchiladas ($18.95 with rice and beans) generously stuffed with fat shreds of duck rolled in housemade tortillas with a sauce flashing the green lights of poblano and spinach, with a balance of silky texture and vegetal spice to hydrate and amplify the duck. They come for a pisco sour that blends the heady froth of egg white with the sweet-sour twang of South American grape brandy or a mojito so strong with mint from the restaurant’s garden that it freshens the mind, breath and spirit for hours afterward.
How you’ll react to a dried ancho chile stuffed with chicken, olives and capers ($19.50 with rice and beans) depends on whether the chile’s parchment texture and trace of powdery char from overcooking compromise its virginal white cream sauce for you. In “SNL” terms, it’s the band’s second song, the one that’s not a hit.
What the Nielsen families do not come to Fonda for are the dead-eyed looks I got from two hostesses whose job it was to: (a) be smoking hot, and (b) to undercut the rest of the staff’s customer-service efforts. They don’t come for busmen who clear plates by reaching across your chest, nor the water guy whose careless cross-jabs with the pitcher left my guest bobbing like a UFC fighter to dodge them.
Like “SNL” in the mid-‘80s, the decor at FSM can challenge the nerves, and it looks like they’ve added layers of paint, texture, art and pottery every year, until it’s gotten so thick that nothing stands out anymore. Stand still long enough and you might get decorated, too. The serving dishes from Fonda’s renowned Sunday brunch still clutter the center of the dining room throughout the week, like a clearance sale on classical Mexican pottery. When I made the same interior-design observations in the Statesman, defenders of the hacienda questioned my taste, my credentials and my relationship with my mother. It was the most vocal reaction one of my Statesman reviews ever drew, because you don’t mess with the original.
Good night, and have a pleasant mañana.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants