Address: 248 Swan Street, Richmond, 3121
Phone: (03) 9429 0085
Open: Monday to Thursday, midday until 9.30pm
Friday, midday until midnight
Saturday, 3pm until midnight
Sunday, 3pm until 9.30pm
“If you have any allergies to avocado, onion, coriander, lime or chilli please be sure to let us know,” reads the menu at Fonda Mexican. It then clarifies cheekily, “If you simply dislike avocado, onion, coriander, lime or chilli, Mexican may not be for you?”
That just about sums up Tim McDonald and David Youl’s newest addition to Swan Street, which opened it’s bright green door in November last year. From the food to the atmosphere, it’s vibrant, fresh and fun.
Although less than four months old, you’ll be pushed to find a table at Fonda. Word has spread quickly that it’s “a casual, accessible Mamasita”, if not tastier, too. On a balmy Melbourne day you’re almost guaranteed to wait for a table, albeit not for long. A group of four were leaving just as we arrived and we managed to snag one of the five wooden bench tables on the footpath.
Couples can sit in a spot by the window, while groups of three or more can jump on one of the raised tables opposite the open kitchen. There is also a small courtyard out the back, should you wish to escape the hustle and bustle of the place.
Fonda is so packed out that waiters barely have time to tell newcomers that one orders at the counter, although they do bring menus eventually. Tim was manning the floor and stepped the service up a notch. Warm, approachable and efficient, he was obviously in control.
The adorable brick building is painted black, which emphasises the colourful “Mi casa, su casa” sign (my house, your house) painted in bright hues on the outside wall. Beneath it a few tables for two line the laneway, leading to a back entrance to the courtyard.
The kitchen counter, a mix of white tiles and wooden boards, takes up most of the room inside. The tortilla station is on fire throughout service (not literally, duh). Balls of dough baked daily at the Abbotsford Convent bakery are flattened in a press and then flipped onto a hot plate. Meat sizzles on the other stoves while the dishwasher keeps busy in the far corner. The counter is complete with a built-in fridge for soft drinks and is dotted with Mexican knick-knacks, bright flowers and a bowl of lemons and limes.
Drinks range from vino and cerveza (there are three varieties of imported, Mexican beer) to horcharta, a creamy soft drink made from rice, water, cinnamon, vanilla and evaporated milk designed to take the edge off all that spice. Jarrito soda is available in five flavours. It wouldn’t be an accurate representation of Mexican culture without tequila, of which there are four to choose from. But once you see the slushy machine churning the lychee and elderflower frozen margarita, made with Tromba Tequila and apple juice, it’s difficult to opt for anything else. The margarita and the horcharta are served in glass jars with straws that resemble a barber’s pole.
As for the food, Chef Ravi Presser (Cumulus Inc.) and Mex-pert Lupita Manzo (Cantinero, Sydney) have created an authentic Mexican menu with an Australian touch. Food is served as soon as it’s ready; think fast food without the negative connotations.
If you’re enjoying a beverage, order some antojitos or Mexican street snacks. We skipped the tortilla crisps and fat chips and went straight for the charred corn with chipotle aioli, ricotta salata (dried, salted ricotta) and lime. The corn kernels burst in the mouth with each bite, complemented by the creamy cheese finely grated on top.
It’s not often one is able to indulge in pork scratchings or chicharos. Crispy and dry, they tasted incredibly naughty and arrived with a bowl of salsa verde, a spicy, jalapeno dipping sauce.
Then there were the 12 inch burritos. All of Fonda's tortillas are pressed at the tortilla station as each burrito is ordered. We had the chopped beef with black beans, salsa roja (a red sauce made with tomatoes, chilli, coriander and loads of onion and garlic) and chipotle aioli. The black beans and generous amount of meat bulked up the tortilla, which was lined with guacamole and stuffed with bright purple cabbage.
As for that Australian touch, it doesn’t get much more Aussie than a kangaroo burrito. It was the highlight of the meal. Kangaroo is difficult to do well and is often rendered tough due to overcooking. Not so at Fonda, where the tender fillet showed hints of pink. The remainder of the fillings included avocado, some ever-popular quinoa, soft sweet potato, purple cabbage, a smoky relish and coriander. There are also vegetarian and a grilled chicken options.
Of course there are quesadillas on the menu, also 12 inches. You can pick the veggie quesadillas of asparagus with refried black beans, lemon and smoky relish… or you can follow our lead and go for the chorizo with queso fresco, jalapenos and salsa roja. The crisp shell of the pressed tortilla was slopped with the spicy red salsa and peeled back to reveal a liberal amount of melted cheese. The jalapenos had a decent amount of bite and cut through the oiliness of the sliced hunks of mild chorizo. It was like a Mexican pizza, just look at the cheesy strings trying to escape from the tortilla in this photo:
If you’re the taco type there are three, six inch varieties to tempt you. Try the braised pork with pineapple, lime, coriander and onion, or the vegetarian with squash and peas (or zucchini and mint) with salsa verde and lime. We fussed over the fish taco, in which golden nuggets of crumbed market fish rested on a blanket of guacamole and tumbled out with each bite. Chipotle aioli brought the spice to the table, while the taco was topped with a rainbow of pickled carrot, onion and cabbage.
For something lighter, there’s a grilled chicken ensalata (salad) with quinoa, black beans, cabbage, coriander, smoked corn, baby peas and a lemon vinaigrette. If you’re a chilli fiend and crave that extra kick, try the house-made ‘Jane Fonda’ hot sauce.
You’ll want to bring all of your señors and señoriras when you visit Fonda so you can sample the entire menu. While I will spare you the overused “I’m fonda Fonda” pun, I will say this: Mexican in Melbourne seems to be the hot thing at the moment (Mamasita, Taco Truck, Trippy Taco, Newmarket Hotel, Pacos Tacos, etc.), but Fonda wins extra points for being the best all-rounder. You won’t have to line up on a narrow staircase at 6pm to be fed (I’m looking at you, Mamasita), you don’t have to chase your meal around town, it’s dirt cheap but doesn’t taste it, there’s a lively, unfussy vibe and it boast genuine Mexican fare with a modern twist. Ñam ñam, indeed!