When Tom Gilliland and chef Miguel Ravago opened Fonda San Miguel in 1975, they had a hard time selling regional Mexican dishes to Austin diners. Texans, it seemed, were not ready to give up their chalupas, puffy tacos, and enchiladas, combo-plate comfort food. Back then, it was also difficult to find ingredients — dried chiles, black turtle beans, and Mexican vanilla — in the quantity needed for their recipes.
But Gilliland and Ravago persevered and, eventually, diners came around to authentic Mexican food — calabacitas rellenas, sopa tarasca tipo conde, and quesadillas de huitlacoche — the local grocers stocked more of the Mexican cooking supplies, and the restaurant flourished. This month, Gilliland and Ravago celebrate three decades of business with the release of Fonda San Miguel, a cookbook, a history, and a catalog of the restaurant’s art collection.
Virginia Wood, the restaurant’s first pastry chef and now the Austin Chronicle’s food editor, wrote most of the book’s text. For that reason, Fonda San Miguel reads like an article, albeit one in which the writer waxes nostalgic and, perhaps understandably, steers away from the tough questions. Though, like many restaurant cookbooks, Fonda San Miguel has its florid, self-promotional moments, they are outweighed by interesting bits of trivia that give the restaurateurs’ vision a context: In Texas, selling individual drinks only became legal in 1971, so a fresh lime margarita really would have been a revelation in 1975.
Also interesting is Gilliland’s sizable Mexican-art collection. Scattered throughout the book, images of the pieces are accompanied by anecdotal notes that give one the sense of wandering through the restaurant with Gilliland. While he asserts he simply bought what he liked, Gilliland has collected the work of many important, well-known artists along the way, ranging from Francisco Zuniga’s full, earthy figures to Rufino Tamayo’s one-dimensional mixograph of watermelon on handmade paper to a rustic string, paper, and fabric collage of ladies at tea by Rudolfo Morales.
| Fonda San Miguel: |
Thirty Years of Food and Art
By Tom Gilliland and
Miguel Ravago with text
by Virginia B. Wood
$34.95, 238 pages
Who cares about the art, you say, what about the food? The recipes are easy enough to follow and, bucking current trends, are not accompanied by serving tips, short cuts, or elaborate how-tos, which can be helpful but also tend to clutter up the page.
In the sweltering fall weather, we were drawn to the Ceviche Veracruzano. The recipe called for chunks of redfish soaked overnight in lime juice — which “cooks” its translucent flesh firm and white — and then mixed with pickled jalapeños, tomatoes, cilantro, and dried Mexican oregano. The fish was light and delicate, and though its tart bite was enough to make our lips pucker and burn when taken alone, it mellowed to refreshing when scooped up with a salty chip and a slice of avocado.
My dining companion and I ate the whole dish in one sitting and wished that, instead of loafing around reading about the art, we’d spent the evening making anchos rellenos en escabeche (pickled ancho chiles stuffed with potatoes) or at least a pastel de tres leches. •
By Susan Pagani