A Glimpse Inside Mexico City’s Classic Fondas, Home of the Original Value Meal
I was a freelance journalist for a few years chugging my way through odd jobs and writing assignments for poor pay and a safety net of zero. Because of this, I became intimately familiar with the fondas in my neighborhood, the small, family-run diners...
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in March, 2015.
I was a freelance journalist for a few years in Mexico City, chugging my way through odd jobs and writing assignments, for poor pay and a safety net of zero. Because of this, I became intimately familiar with the fondas in my neighborhood. The small, family-run diners that dot any colonia in this sea of concrete and asphalt offer the coziest setting for anyone who wants to eat well, solidly, and for little cash.
Fondas offer home-style Mexico City cooking from breakfast until lunchtime—which is ritually celebrated in this town beginning at 2 PM. At this hour on every weekday, each fonda begins offering their comida corrida, a three course pre-fixed meal that is also referred to as the menú del día.
The "menu of the day" is the ideal meal for people who believe that lunch can be cheap but still dignified. For about 50 pesos, or $3.80, the diner gets a soup to start (usually a chicken consomé or at least one other option such as lentil soup or a cream of broccoli or cauliflower), followed by a middle plate of rice, pasta, or salad. The main course is usually a meat dish or fillet guisado with an almost infinite variety of salsas or secret preparation methods.
The house also always serves customers a fresh glass of an agua del día, often made with melon, guayaba, watermelon, or lime. Sometimes dessert or coffee is included.
When I was making, say, less than half-peso-a-per-word on a daily news story, this Aztec "value meal" was a local custom I quickly learned to adopt.
I relied most heavily on the fondas located in little stalls inside the San Juan Arcos de Belén market, at the Salto del Agua subway station. Among my equally starving writer or artist neighbors at the time, deep in the late economic dip of the last decade, we called this market "San Juan de los Pobres" — St. John of the Poor — well, because we were pretty poor and we couldn't afford to eat regularly at the fancy 80-peso meat-and-cheese baguettes that out-of-hood visitors like eating at the other neighborhood market, which we called "San Juan de los Ricos," aka San Juan Ernesto Pugibet. This "gourmet market" of cured meats, Asian products, and "exotic" fowl is a few blocks away from San Juan Arcos de Belén, but a million miles away in terms of the two customer bases. One San Juan market is for working-class folks, let's say, while the other San Juan is for the sort of people who come downtown expressly to shop for shitake mushrooms and quail eggs.
Anyway, we had the "menu of the day" at Arcos de Belén—a lot of it. Consomé to soothe out the edges of a hangover or a mild city cold. Rice with fried plantains on top, to remind the soul of Mexico's healing tropical beaches, just a five-hour bus ride away. And then, a range of hearty finishers to chose from; a patty of huanzontle stuffed with queso in a savory red sauce, maybe; or a plate of green enchiladas, or a straight-up milanesa and fries, breaded beef-steak sent down straight from the heavens.
Here in VICE's Mexico office, the fondas of our fair, smoggy city remain always close to our hearts. That's why we jumped at a challenge that was proposed to us: create a piece on Mexico City's fonditas, as they can also be affectionately called, for the highly anticipated two-day food symposium held here in late May, Mesámerica 2014, in conjunction with MUNCHIES.
The key to identifying a good fonda is in the intangibles: Care, affection, and attention to detail is evident in the preparation of the dishes, the rice is just right, the place feels as though you're visiting someone's home kitchen from the second you sit down. One of the most enduring practices inside a fonda is that of saying "Buen provecho" to the nearest stranger next to you, once you arrive, and once you leave, of course, to indicate harmony and goodwill among your fellow diners. Buen provecho literally means, "Enjoy your meal," or more precisely, "May you find your meal satisfying." It's the Mexican 'bon appétit', and I hope we never lose its usage in the everyday.
For Mesamérica 2014, we came up with a video where I explore the "menus of the day" at three classic Mexico City fondas, breakfast to dinner (or dinner–breakfast, if you will), in 24 hours.
Today, even though I've graduated to full-time-job status, I still find refuge a couple times a week at a fonda tucked away somewhere—at a market, above a subway station I suddenly find myself near when lunchtime strikes, or a place that might be way out of the way, but clearly worth the trip.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in June, 2015.