Saturday night at a Southeast Portland Mexican restaurant that shall remain nameless. It's packed. I've pushed my plate away in disgust, having eaten the worst fajita ever. It began lukewarm and gelatinous, it ended with a hair. Why, I wonder, do I subject myself to this cheese-smothered crap? Why are there so many people here doing the same? After all, I could have had a better meal from a converted Winnebago parked downtown or from any of the restaurants in the city that excel in high-end Mexican cuisine.
Two days later I find myself in the understated, comfy dining room of Fonda Rosa, a new entry into the authentic Mexican food fray. Blessedly, my faith in the country's cuisine is redeemed.
I'm not suggesting that Fonda Rosa is the apex of Mexican dining in Portland (DF and Taqueria Nueve have traditionally vied for that title), but they are certainly trying. Regard the fish tacos. Good in theory, many fish tacos have an unconscionable funk. Not at Fonda Rosa. Here, meaty red snapper is blackened and pan seared until tender and smoky. Combined with warm, handmade corn tortillas, pico de gallo, and slightly bitter slaw, these tacos offer a perfect balance between freshness, heat, and savoriness. They are light and yes, subtle. Accompanied by chunky guacamole and a serving of pillowy hand-mashed beans, this is a perfectly sized and reasonably priced plate.
Fonda Rosa's offerings seem transported, via the memories of Chef Hugo Hernandez, straight from Central West Mexico. Consider the ceviche: rock fish simply marinated in a mixture of citrus juices then coated in serrano-infused tomato sauce. It's wonderfully hearty, and the serrano heat is like a warm breeze over oceanic freshness. When chased with a sip of Herradura tequila, the flavors open up and mature across the palate.
Following the ceviche with Dungeness crab enchiladas, I wanted nothing more than to hop a plane to Colima, Mexico, where Hernandez learned to cook as a boy, so I could better understand the roots of his cuisine. Far from the Tex-Mex slop most poor souls have become accustomed to, these are finely crafted enchiladas. The crab is tender inside corn tortillas topped with tangy, roasted poblano chili salsa verde and cotija cheese. The citrus notes from the salsa verde complement the sweet Dungeness while cotija and Crema Mexicana anchor everything with buttery smoothness. This dish is moan inducing, but the rice pilaf that accompanies may as well be ignored, adding nothing to the plate but an orange color.
There are so many flavorful items on Fonda Rosa's menu that it's perplexing to come across relatively dull dishes like the sopitos and the sopas de filete. Both dishes are oddly bland, with nothing to set them off. A shot of El Tapatio sauce helped, but they needed more kick. The blandness was particularly troubling in the sopas de filete, a higher-priced entrée. Sure, the meat was perfectly cooked, juicy, and tender, and the masa corn boat was wonderfully crispy, but these aggregate parts are not enough to allow the flavor to rise. I had a sense that Chef Hernandez was holding back in these dishes. It's obvious he is capable of wonders. Is he worried that his patrons can't take the heat?
Admittedly, those few dishes that don't work seem like glitches in an otherwise subtle and graceful menu. But in a way, I feel liberated and cursed by the knowledge of Fonda Rosa. Never again will I be able to go back to mediocre Mexican food without thinking fondly of those perfect fish tacos.