by Diana Serbe
There are restaurants that shine brightly and become stars in the culinary sky. Like shooting stars, many lose their luster only to disappear in a galaxy of newer stars. Occasionally one of those star restaurants continues to gleam, even burnishes its luster, and achieves fame beyond the momentary to become legendary. Fonda San Miguel is one of those rare restaurants and if you are in Austin, or close to Austin, even thinking of Austin, you have to dine at Fonda.
To achieve this recognition requires either a chorus of angels singing from a cloud above, or, lacking that, the unending love and dedication of the restaurant's owners. In this instance there are two, Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago, and Fonda San Miguel is home to their passion for the diversity of true Mexican cooking, for the country, its people and its art. In the thirty years Fonda has existed, the restaurant has developed into an homage to all that is Mexican. The all-important chef is Miguel Ravago who grew up with his abuelita's cooking and who honed his skills under the very disciplined Diana Kennedy, doyenne of Mexican cooking. This is Mexican cooking at its apex, a cuisine that is nuanced and subtle, one that demands the knowledge of dishes from the various regions of Mexico. Ravago travels to Mexico to learn, camera always at the ready. "I don't know it all," says Ravago and this may be a hint as to why the restaurant continually shines. Ravago is excited by each new dish he discovers and brings it back to the restaurant. If the chef is never bored, he will hear his diners comment, "It's better than ever." Tom Gilliland is dedicated to the celebration of Mexican art and is the one who has made the restaurant one of the most beautiful in Austin. Through his travels in Mexico, through years of passionate collecting Tom has built a museum quality art collection that he rotates on the walls of the restaurant. When asked how he made his selections, Gilliland says that when choosing art he remembered always that "It should sing to you." Gilliland hears many songs, and every detail of the restaurant breathes art - the imported wooden doors that usher you into this realm, the hand-painted murals on the walls, the imported tiles, and the oh-so-comfortable chairs made in Mexico with specifications to be ample and comfortable.
Fonda San Miguel is famous for the Hacienda Brunch they serve on Sunday. This is a good introduction to the restaurant, and if you are very clever you'll take a small sample of everything, accompanied with fresh tortillas - a taste unparalleled if you have never eaten a fresh one. Try one dish, perhaps agujas de res, Yucatan style beef short ribs, then refresh your palate with Pico de Gallo and try another savory mouthful of chiles rellenos de picadillo, chiles stuffed with pork or cochinita pibil, pork cooked in a pit Yucatan style, a barbecue that rivals the famous Texas barbecue. The list is long and chef Ravago is there to guide you through your selections. When you're done, you will have found a dish to try when you return for your first dinner. And your second time, and your third for this is classic Mexican food - subtle and nuanced, as fine as any cuisine in the world.