Don't Call Them Tapas 

Lalime's Latin Sibling

Almost every Mexican cookbook published in the States contains a long rant about how Mexican cuisine is far more diverse and sophisticated than the antojitos, or corn masa-based snacks, we get at taquerias. Given the Mexican-American population in the Bay Area, it has always puzzled and saddened me that I can't find restaurants serving the recipes that Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless, and Zurela Martinez write about so lovingly. But now we're starting to catch on -- restaurants serving higher-end Central and South American food are popping up all over.

Enter Fonda Solana. Though this much-anticipated new restaurant from the Lalime's crew serves dishes from all over Mexico and a few from South America, it doesn't want to be called regional Mexican, Nuevo Latino, or (God forbid) tapas. "We're East Bay Latino," explains chef de cuisine David Rosales. "A fonda is a neighborhood restaurant, like a cafe. It's not big or fancy or expensive, just a place where you hang out." Under the direction of Lalime's owners Cindy and Haig Krikorian, Rosales and executive chef Steve Jaramillo (also the executive chef at Lalime's) are mining their culinary histories and travels to put together a rotating menu of small, rustic dishes.

Though the food may be rustic, the decor is anything but. Wisely, the owners haven't done much to the interior of the space that used to house Christopher's Cafe. They've kept all the exposed brick walls, the suspended stairway to the mezzanine level, the headlamp lights, and the shiny open kitchen with countertop seating. The Krikorians and their partners have also separated off the slightly sunken front area with brushed chrome banquettes and silver-topped tables, heightening the industrial feel. To keep the space inviting, they've dimmed the lighting and painted the sole plaster-covered wall in the back Chinese lacquer red. They also flushed out the full bar below the staircase, so that diners can peruse row after row of bottles while they wait to be seated.

The bottles, along with the martini glass in the logo, suggest that drinking is in order. These small plates are meant to be either a bar snack, a post-movie treat, or the evening's main event. On the snack end of the menu was a seemingly tiny ramekin of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and peanuts. Intensely salty, intensely garlicky, the treat carried a sly, smoldering heat that begged to be quenched. Also good with drinks were thin, puffy fried tortilla crescents designed to scoop up guacamole -- lime and lime alone its dominant note -- or dip into a fragrant salsa almost black from charred chiles.

The rest of the menu still needs a little tweaking, not necessarily to improve the quality of the food -- pleasure made my eyes roll back into my head a couple of times -- but to better orchestrate the range of dishes. On my first visit, we overwhelmed our palates with rich, spicy stews and antojitos, cut with a few bright, tart items. Each of us was given only three tortillas to absorb all the flavors and provide some bland relief (extra sets of three are available for $1) -- no other starches were offered. Vegetarians who don't eat seafood (luckily, all my guests did) will find it hard to get full. And authenticity be damned, we wanted more vegetables than a choice of two salads.They were good, though. Roasted peeled almonds dotted the first, a jumble of sliced romaine. The almonds' meatiness substituted for the anchovies in the salad's Caesar-like, egg-enriched vinaigrette. The second "salad," recalling the fresh vegetables sold by cart-pushing street vendors, arrived in a lowball glass. Chunky sticks of cool, crisp cucumber and jicama were half-submerged in lime juice and sprinkled with bright-red chile powder.Many of the lighter dishes center around seafood. Pepper-flecked oysters on the half shell were presented on a bed of rock salt with lemons. The bivalves were lightly, perfectly seviched in silver lime juice infused with hauntingly floral California bay leaves so that the flesh of the oysters firmed up and lost some of its brine. Veracruz seafood cocktail, spilling over the top of a fluted parfait glass, contained a sauce-coated mixture of bass, shrimp, and crab meat to be eaten on top of Saltine crackers. I loved that true Mexican touch, but didn't warm to the cocktail sauce, which masked the flavors of the seafood yet proved too delicate to impress me with the strength of its character.

All across Central America, corn masa (tortilla dough) is used with as much imagination and versatility as wheat-based dough is in Europe. Sticking to its casual focus, Fonda showcases the scope of these antojitos. One night's tamale was pork with a roasted chile sauce; the masa melted away from the tender, meaty filling, and the sauce proved an apt counterpoint, vivid but discreet. In the whimsical cigar-shaped molotes, the chefs wrapped a tortilla-thin layer of masa around chorizo, onions, and potatoes. A drizzle of crème fraîche and a Salvadoran-style pickled cabbage and carrot salad complemented the spicy, oily filling with their unctuous and biting notes. The only antojito that disappointed us was the Yucatan-style fish taco, where the same sweet and tart pickled-cabbage salad couldn't liven up a slab of spice-rubbed but overcooked fish wrapped in an equally dry tortilla.

Other high-end dishes mixed haute cuisine technique -- that is to say, perfectly cooked meats -- with traditional South American preparations. A moist roast quail, still rosy at the breast, lay atop a pool of nutty, roasted-chile mole that melded with its sweet gaminess. Herbal, vinegary Argentine chimichurri sauce was spooned over a solitary lamb chop, tender all the way to its fatty edges; a small pile of pickled ancho chile hid in the corner of the plate until a slip of the fork brought its sweet, rich heat to our attention.

We voted the two stews Most Likely to Become Signature Dishes. One of my dining companions, who lived in New Mexico for many years, commented that they both tasted Californian in that all the flavors stayed out front, not merging into a unified and bombastically rich whole. In the Brazilian vatapá, chunks of firm white fish, small rock shrimp, clams, and mussels were bathed in a thick sauce, creamy with ground peanuts and redolent with ginger, coconut milk, and lime, each singing out its distinct note. Like the vatapá, the tinga poblana was served in a flat, round clay casserole. Smoky chipotle (smoked, dried jalape?o) chiles -- milder than they could have been -- pulled together the meaty, earthy stew of pork, potatoes, and tomatoes.

Tiny in size, simple in conception, the desserts follow the small-plates format. After a panoply of spicy, sometimes heavy food, big desserts don't feel necessary. At one meal, a lowball glass of mango spears doused with silver lime juice sufficed. The sharpness of the limes highlighted the creamy, sweet flesh of the mango. Another light touch was the cookie plate, containing three brittle, buttery miniature palmiers and three gritty, fruity orange-cornmeal shortbread rounds. More Spartan were translucent brown squares of ate (preserved quince paste) paired with slivers of a mild Manchego (Spanish sheep milk cheese). And Fonda's flan -- the ubiquitous Central American dessert, which I'm not partial to -- emerged perfect: the caramel syrup rich but not burnt, the custard dissolving on the tongue.

Fonda is set up to drink. And not wine and beer -- we're talking hard liquor. The alcohol menu dwarfs the tiny wine and beer list, and alcohol-free drinks are limited to a couple of sparkling waters. Rosales promises that the wine list (coordinated by Haig Krikorian with advice from Stephen Singer) is growing, and I hope that it expands the range of exciting, affordable South American wines now heading north. A big fan of tequila and cacha?a, I tried a couple of the vibrant house cocktails, but after one I just wanted a crisp Mexican beer to clear the spice off my tongue between bites. Besides, at $7 to $9 a pop, more than one would have cleared the cash from my wallet.

The Krikorian restaurants have made a name for themselves for the warmth of their wait staff, and dining room manager Michael Hutchings brings Lalime's style service to Fonda. Other than the overwhelmingly kooky hostess, who sported a ten-gallon hat and a studied Spanglish vocabulary, our waiters and busboys had absorbed the essentials of good service -- charm, helpfulness, and discretion. There were a few slip-ups -- a little confusion over clearing plates here, a missed dessert there -- but they were isolated and easily forgiven in a new staff.

Once dinner stabilizes, Fonda plans to open for weekend brunch and perhaps lunch, the two main meals served by fondas across Mexico. It may prove to be a little too expensive to become the kind of hangout envisioned by the owners, but there's much to welcome curious, discerning diners.


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