As those of you kind enough to follow my food ramblings, you know few places cause me to wax more nostalgic than Austin, Texas, the town where I grew up. I recently took a trip back home and found myself face-to-fork with the one dish in the one restaurant most responsible for my ongoing food-dudery.
The dish was Mole, and the restaurant was Fonda San Miguel. The occasion was a dinner date with my eldest sister Suzanne on what would’ve been my recently departed mother’s 80th birthday.
One dip of one chip in the salsa roja, and I was cast back to the 1980s, wondering how long it would take me to start at second base for the San Diego Padres or write my way into any J.R.R. Tolkien conversation and wondering how it was that this Mexican restaurant found a way to be unique in a virtual ocean of Mexican restaurants.
Under a bright August moon, the elegant, upscale Mexican eatery in its 39th year serving authentic interior cuisine was populated by the usual mix of folks – some dressed to the nines, others in short pants. Austin proper.
Sue ordered my mother’s favorite dish, Enchiladas Suizas, and I went mano y mano with the dish that is to my career what a nuclear spider was to Peter Parker. After a wonderful dinner and homage to our mother, I was left trying to remember the details of my family’s first visit to Fonda San Miguel, how I came to order mole and The Village People.
The Village People have never been more relevant than in the waning hours of the 1970s, and the dawning minutes of 1980.On “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve” in 1979 and into 1980, they performed two songs I recall. First was “Sleazy,” which was equal parts boot to the ribs of death-spinning Disco and fitting final addition to the 1970s soundtrack, capturing the general drear and malaise of a once-promising decade whose bubble burst with glitter-spitting roller-skates and downbeat cinema while a presidency circled the drain with as much confidence as a crumpled can of Billy beer flung into the night from the back of a battered Ford F-150. Next, as if sensing their own pop culture mortality, The Village People welcomed Ronald Reagan’s decade with a performance of the appropriately cloying clunker “In the 80s,” which did for the last-gasp of the disco era’s chief spokescakes what Travis did for Old Yeller.
Singing middle-class archetypes with a secret layered so densely with irony it would’ve blocked Superman’s X-Ray vision were out; any band with bad hair and low-quality music videos were in. Progress, right?
That’s another debate, but what isn’t is how that less-than-adequate harbinger was lost on the last kid left in the Cathey household, who was less than a week into his 13th year. Despite The Village People’s best Oracle at Delphi attempts, I lacked the analytical skills to see I was on a collision course with one of those cosmic-tumbler-spinning moments. But that’s exactly where I was in the months that followed my parents’ unbridled glee over the presidential election of a man who preceded his term as governor of our former home, California, primarily as second-banana to a rain-making Hollywood chimpanzee named Bonzo.
Hey, I couldn’t say much, I was still blow-drying my hair and wrestling alligator-shirt envy.
Meanwhile, a strange thing was happening to my primary sustenance, Mexican food. Tex-Mex was well into its third decade as the most-recognized expression of cuisine derived south of the Rio Grande. The fusion-before-fusion cuisine was dead but wouldn’t lay down. Anti-Tex-Mex sentiment was on the rise, and Chuy’s was still a few years from ramping up the possibilities of Tex-Mex in Austin.
All the chatter was how Tex-Mex wasn’t authentic and how precious few local restaurants offered the kind of fare one would expect in Mexico City. Hurtling into the vortex of adolescence, communication between me and my parents was breaking up like Steve Austin’s experimental lifting body aircraft. Mexican food was the bridge that kept us connected the next five years.
And it was from that bridge my parents and I set sail for Jorge’s on Hancock Drive in Austin, Texas on a Monday night in 1980. I’m not sure which Monday, but I know it was a Monday because we found plenty of parking and a sign on the door that articulated the hours of operation, including “Monday: Closed.”
We’d found this Jorge’s location, home to La Mancha Tex-Mex Tavern since 2012, for its proximity to the congregation of Chuch of Christers we belonged to called Highland Village, around the corner on Bull Creek Road. My dad preferred this Jorge’s location to the Jorge’s Uptown Enchilada Bar on Lavaca, though it was a little further from home, because it rarely had a line and plentiful parking. (A tradition carried on by Cathey men to this day.)
But on that fateful Monday, Jorge’s was closed and I could feel an opportunity to pamper my palate slipping away. In a fit of desperation, I yipped from the back seat about what appeared to be a new place we’d passed at the Y intersection at North Loop and Hancock. My mother, God bless her, confirmed the sighting and echoed my enthusiasm to get our Tex-Mex on in those joystick and junk bond days when chips were served with hot sauce and butter was the preferred condiment for flour tortillas which arrived on a wax paper throne within a plastic warmer and were set on the table next to a red candle in a black, wrought-iron cradle.
Dad didn’t commit to the new place right away. Typically, he would’ve suggested we just go to The County Line for barbecue but a new dish had supplanted his love of thick-sliced brisket and beef ribs.
Fajitas, or faww-heetus as he called them, were strips of marinated skirt steak served on a sizzling skillet over sliced onions and bell peppers and given a squirt of lemon – not yet limes – at the table for a dash of flash. If not for the recent explosion of popularity of this dish, another trip to The County Line, or The Catfish Parlour might’ve been in the offing.
Instead, we did an about face in the pride of the Cathey fleet, a white Cadillac Sedan DeVille or what GM historians refer to as Pre-Escalade Automobilia. It had blue interior and every add-on short of a sun roof a car buyer could want back when the world’s great mysteries included the Rubik’s cube, the lyrics to “Kyrie” and how the Solid Gold Dancers were able to avoid wardrobe malfunctions when nobody yet knew what a wardrobe malfunction was.The lovely restaurant splashed in spotlights and bashfully residing behind and beneath a small cadre of urban forestry was called La Fonda San Miguel, or as my mother would come to call it, Fonda’s — which was ironic considering the vitriol both she and my father held for the Jazzercising liberal gal who shared the Spanish word for “inn” as her last name. Of course, Mom adored Henry so I’m sure she cast her considerable powers of cognitive dissonance to erase Hanoi Jane by a score of two Fondas to one.
Behind a pair of Ivanhoe-worthy hand-carved wooden doors was an expression of Mexican dining theater my #twopartsruralTexashillbillytoonepartorphanedSoCalteentragedyoffsprungsocialrefugee family had never experienced.
Tables were surrounded by the same rawhide chairs that sat on our neighbor’s front porch, the Furrs. Mrs. Furr was born, raised and whisked away from Mexico City by Mr. Furr, who was an artist in a family known for drug stores, grocery stores and, you guessed it, cafeterias.
Inside Fonda San Miguel, we passed through the foyer and waiting-area-cum-cocktail-lounge to the hostess stand where stood the abuela of all of Mexico’s venerable abuelas. If shesmiled it was hidden in shadow, which appeared to be the way she preferred it. A little shaken, but not stirred enough to go home hungry because even the fast-food joints closed before bedtime in the days when Tom Selleck was bucking for induction into the Hall of Fame for celebrities inexplicably deemed sex symbols despite indisputably tragic facial hair with Abraham Lincoln, Dan Hagerty, Gene Shalit and Frida Kahlo.
The hot sauce was salsa and it came not only in roja but verde – neither likely ever to be confused with Pace picante sauce. Beans came in black rather than pinto but were similarly fried in pork fat, partially mashed and served with a velvety dollop of crema. We recognized words like enchiladas and rellenos on the menu but didn’t recognize terms like tomatillo and mole poblano. And Dad searched back and forth for fajitas and found nada.
Our family tradition was to either fear or mock what we didn’t understand so we agreed enchiladas were doubtlessly the safest bet. Mom gambled on Suizas, my father and I settling on a version stuffed with slow-roasted beef and dressed sharply in a ranchero sauce too good for either of us.
Dinner didn’t last as long as it should have, and the silence was broken only by stray syllables and human purrs intended to communicate our approval but more like some spell of magic realism that connected our palates and gave us the briefest of culinary Wonder Twin powers.
There were no doggie bags. If not for the Health Department, our plates could’ve been reshelved after we cleaned them down to the last swipe of a flour tortilla that never spent a minute when it wasn’t being formed by human hands or springing to life on a hot comal before arriving at our table swaddled in cloth.
“Jorge who?” we asked for the rest of our years dining in Austin.
Many happy returns ensued thanks to those Enchiladas Suizas, which were and are a conjugation of succulent chicken and hand-made corn tortillas adorned in a rich sauce made of crema and Swiss cheese.“David, how do you say the one I like?” Mom would say to me upon our many happy returns after the waiter asked what the lady would like to order.
“Swee-sus,” I would remind her with depreciating enthusiasm as time and opportunities missed to tell her “rhymes with Jesus” passed and amassed over the months in which Mork met Mindy, Kristen busted a cap in J.R. and pop culture’s first true double-nickel named Bo and her braids bounced across the silver screen.
I loved my enchiladas and stuck with them for close to a year before branching into the relleno family then zigged back to enchiladas in verde but shook things up with the one I initially thought was named for a furry subterranean critter but turned out to rhyme with Yoplait. Chocolate, read the description for mole, bittersweet chocolate mixed with a multitude of chiles and reduced with chicken stock using a painstaking technique no cheese-enchilada-and-chili-gravy slinger in town would be fool enough to feature much less offer daily.
But Fonda San Miguel did, and after all the chicken enchiladas I’d planted in my stomach, I felt I owed it to myself to try the weirdest one I’d come across yet. And if I didn’t like it, I’d load up on chips and hot sauce, I wasn’t paying.
So, for the first time in my young life, I ordered from the menu with no safety net and the result wasn’t as magical as I envisioned. It didn’t resemble any chocolate I’d ever come across. The saving grace was its heat level and the juicy chicken lurking beneath. But the next day, I was still thinking about the mole—a lot. By the time we returned to the corner of Hancock and North Loop, I’d thought about the dish enough to try it again.
Many visits over 34 years ensued, and I didn’t stop ordering mole enchiladas until they added Pollo en Mole Poblano, which allowed me to eat the dish in the fashion intended by whatever god or gods who imbued holy inspiration over the good cook or cooks in Mexico who arrived at the first perfect mole.
The Food Dude wasn’t yet born, but he was conceived.
It would take years of gestating on Mole and its strange wonders to eventually ponder what culinary hocus pocus the world might harbor beyond my fork and how I might go about extending its reach.
Mole was among the first foods to inspire my sense of creativity, and is certainly the one that had the most profound affect. I’ve always been hesitant to dive head-first into learning to make it; especially after Rick Bayless said it took him a couple decades to get the Oaxacan version right.
If you find yourself in Austin, no trip is complete without a visit to Fonda San Miguel, especially their mind-blowing Sunday brunch. I can’t guarantee it will resonate with you as it does me, but then it’s not likely at the crux of your origin story.
No one is ever going to devote this origin story to screen or comic book, much less reboot it to double-down on the franchise. But that’ll keep my out of Spandex, and if that doesn’t make the world a better, happier place I don’t know what will.