North Side Review: Fonda del Mar
By Andrew Jenkins in Food on Nov 10, 2006 6:00PM
The restaurant was conceived in early 2004 through the partnership of Angel Hernandez and Luis Montero (previously of Mia Francesca), and Raul Arreola, a Rick Bayless pupil and Frontera Grill/Topolobampo veteran. Those are some pretty decent credentials, and the seasoned background definitely shows in every aspect of Fonda’s character. Warmly painted orange walls, covered with vibrantly colored paintings and photographs, mark the small, 60-seat dining room. The open, stainless steel kitchen is clean and remarkably quiet, and adds some buzz to the dining room. The muted lighting is perfect and won’t show the beads of sweat forming on your forehead once the chipotle glaze hits your palate.
The aesthetics inside are nicely complemented by the friendly, professional service. Once seated, we were quickly provided with buckets of ice for our beverages. We happened to bring a six-pack from home on this evening, but we’ve heard that a liquor store down the street offers an impressive wine, tequila and Mexican beer selection. And though Fonda’s menu now includes some alcoholic choices, the complimentary BYOB carries on. Once we were settled, our server took some time to answer all of our questions and deciphered parts of the menu that were lost in translation.
It’s true that Chicagoist needs to brush up on our Spanish, but we still know enough to hear "del Mar" and expect a seafood-centric menu. The majority of Fonda's entrees are made from shrimp, tilapia, Mahi Mahi and other things that swim in the sea. They cook the fish, and they do it very well. Some interesting meat dishes are included too, but we imagine that the next couple of visits we make will be spent trying the del Mar side of the menu.
Our meal started with a sampling of Fonda’s three cevhiches. The traditional shrimp, tomato, onion and cilantro mix was good but not great, and we thought the shrimp had gotten a little tough. A Mahi Mahi ceviche came covered in a green chile salsa and was tender but had retained a little too much lime flavor. The crab variety was definitely our favorite — a pile of shredded crabmeat mixed with onion and cilantro with a potent smoky flavor. Any dish that can be cooked only using limejuice is OK by us.
On this night our party did well to cover the menu’s entrée choices. Some stuck to the basics and went with the Chiles Rellenos de Queso ($14) and the Polla a la Plaza ($16), a roasted chicken breast served with two guajillo enchiladas. Both were excellent takes on more common dishes, with fresh ingredients and spot-on flavors. From the ocean, the Callos de Hacha al Chipotle ($16) came highly recommended. Five sea scallops are seared and then left to simmer and finish in a creamy chipotle sauce. Just before the dish is brought out, the kitchen brushes each of the scallops with a chipolte paste (described as a glaze made from pepper paste and orange juice). Once served, the dark glaze gives the scallops an extra oomph on top of the pleasant spice from the cream sauce. Garnished with crispy onion strips the scallop dish is hot but a thing of beauty.
Equally attractive, the Pescado Tikin Xic ($16) was comprised of achiote-marinated Mahi Mahi baked in a banana leaf and served with room temperature molcajete-habanero salsa and garlic mashed potatoes. Our fish was a little tough on the edges, but fresh and nicely paired with the tart, acidic salsa. This plate was garnished with a mound of neon-purple-colored onions, and while we never found out what gave them their crazy hue, they made for a beautiful presentation. The Camarones al Mojo de Ajo ($15) was our table’s biggest crowd-pleaser. It’s tough to argue with sautéed shrimp, tomato and avocado, but Fonda then adds a rich, caramelized garlic sauce to finish this dish off. The sauce’s garlic was abundant but just shy of overpowering, leaving us pleased and in need of some mints.
Instead of mints, however, we had some flan. And tres leches. And Natillas (a Mexican version of crème brulee) — $6 each. The first two were good, but the Natillas was noteworthy with its vanilla flavoring and chunks of mango.
We did happen upon Fonda on a weeknight, and seating for six was not an issue. We've heard the weekends are a different story so you may want to plan on getting an extra six pack to enjoy on the curb before being seated. We promise, it'll be worth it.
Fonda del Mar — 3749 W. Fullerton Ave. Phone 773-489-3748; Hours of operation are Monday thru Thursday 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m., Sunday 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m., Saturday Brunch 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m., Sunday Brunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.