My love for mornings might come from my experience working at my parents’ fonda. We would always get there around 7:00 am to finish preparing for the breakfast rush. Lupita, who has worked at the same fonda since my grandfather bought the place in the early 1960s, was the first person to arrive. By the time we got there, the big clay pots with the day’s guisados were already steaming. The warmth and aromas from the pots filled the air and it never failed to make me hungry.
My job was to place sugar, instant coffee and salsas on each table before the doors opened at around 7:30. By that time, however, many hours of preparation had been put into the food that would be served that day. Sometimes, for chiles en nogada for example, preparation had started days ahead of time. On school days I would leave at ten minutes to eight, right after having breakfast. The days I didn’t have school, I would stay and wait tables, help with the preparation for lunch or the following day’s meals, or go to the market or central de abasto with my dad to get supplies for the following week’s menu.
As a kid I hated working at my parents’ fonda, especially in the afternoons for lunch rush, always the busiest time of the day, and evenings for the cleanup. Mornings, on the other hand, were my favorite part of the day. Even though we were busy preparing for the day, mornings somehow seemed calmer and quieter than the rest of the day. My memories from that time of my life are always delicious to the senses. To this day, mornings and breakfasts are my favorite part of the day.
Fonda in Mexico refers to a small family restaurant where the owners do most of the work, cooking, waiting tables, cleaning, purchasing ingredients, etc. This kind of restaurant is very popular for comida corrida, a lunch of 3 or 4 courses for about 3 US dollars. Office and blue collar workers, students, housewives and most working class people eat regularly at fondas in Mexico City.
A couple of months ago Jon and I visited a fonda in our neighborhood. The lunch was a classic comida corrida, just like the one my parents used to serve at theirs.
Comida corrida usually starts with a bowl of soup or chicken broth followed by rice. A fried egg, and sometimes slices of banana, might be added to the rice for an extra charge.
The guisado, the main course of the meal, comes next. Guisado can be almost anything cooked in a salsa and served as a main course. There are beef, chicken, pork and vegetarian guisados. In a real fonda there are always several guisados to choose from and the guisado menu changes every day. My dad rotated the guisado menu constantly so the same guisado wasn’t served for four to six weeks. This adds a sense of surprise and adventure to the experience of eating in a fonda.
Dessert at a fonda is usually something simple. On our visit, we only got one very sweet and delicious tuna (prickly pear) each, but sometimes it could be jello, fruit or a slice of a simple cake. The food at my parents’ fonda was always good because my dad only bought fresh, high quality ingredients and Lupita was an amazing cook.
However, my mom’s desserts were big part of the business’ success. She always put a lot of effort and imagination in the preparation of the desserts. People always complimented her for her cakes, flans, cookies and other sweets that were the perfect ending to their comida corrida. I guess I love baking because of her.
Owning a fonda is not easy. Competition is tough. Profits are not high because the price of food has to remain low even when the prices of ingredients, taxes and salaries increase. However, many of them have been able to survive for decades. The secrets to run a successful fonda are basic. The whole family has to be part of the business. In my case, I started helping out when I was very young. The food has to be made from high quality ingredients. This is true for any successful restaurant. And one very important lesson my parents learned was to have fresh, handmade tortillas all the time.
Corn plays a crucial part in the Mexican diet and has been for thousands of years. The most common way to consume corn is in the form of tortillas. Even though a lot of restaurants buy their tortillas fresh every morning, there’s nothing like having a tortilla cooked right before you eat it. My parents hired an employee whose job was only to make tortillas all day long.
Even though fondas are popular for comida corrida, that’s not the only food that’s served there. Most fondas open early for breakfast and at lunchtime you might order other items such as sopes, quesadillas, tlacoyos and other Mexican antojitos (snacks).
Some fondas open on weekends with special menus. The special dish at my parents’ fonda on Saturdays was mole poblano (the famous thick sauce made with up to 25 ingredients including chocolate) made from scratch, a process that took two days. Other fondas offer barbacoa (mutton) tacos, a popular weekend food in Mexico City, and other dishes that they don’t usually have on the menu during the week.
Fondas are a very important part of Mexico’s food culture. Owners and clients create a special relationship over food. Fonda workers know regular customers by name and their likes and dislikes. Lupita was a very well known name in the neighborhood where my parents’ fonda was. Older people would remember my grandparents’ names, Agustin and Carmen, and the food they used to serve when they were in charge. My dad was the guy behind the scenes, but he always knew what was going on in the business, and my mom was famous in the neighborhood for her desserts.
Even though a lot of fast food restaurants have opened in Mexico, fondas remain important as the source of inexpensive and fast lunches for working class Mexicans. The sense of eating a homemade meal made and served by the owners of a fonda beats the industrialized, monotonous and robotic service and products of the fast food chains.
My parents retired from the food business several years ago. My dad complains that the fonda was too much work and the profits were too low so they decided to sell the business to Lupita, who still works there today. There are times when I wish the fonda was still in the family so I could work there, but then I wonder if that is really my calling.
I started learning about food and how to cook there when I was only 10 years old. I know that the fonda shaped who I am now and what I do for a living. My passion for food and cooking was born there, but I don’t think I would like to work in a fonda again. Fortunately for me, and for other millions of Mexicans, fondas are still very popular in Mexico . When I want to feel the warmth of a homemade meal cooked in giant clay pots, I can always walk to one and remember the time of my life when I was on the other side of the counter.
¡Buen provecho and thank you for your tip!