[Original post with pictures available at http://mangelorange.wordpress.com/201...]
Stanton, one of the Lost Cities of Orange County, a place so theoretically unremarkable that most lovers of food couldn't name a single restaurant in it.
Yet Stanton has a growing Korean population, a branch of the venerable Thai Nakorn, upscale dining in the form of Park Avenue and its wonderful Googie bar with the proper martinis, the other branch of the Vegas roadtrip staple known as the Mad Greek...
...and Fonda La Meche, a surprising—no, a serendipitous—find in the archetypal depressing minimall in this forgotten city.
My friend Chad and I had been driving west on Katella, hunting for someplace that looked good, when a bright sign and the word "fonda" popped out of the darkness at me. A short discussion ensued—well, what if it's just another combo-plate place, well then we'll just go elsewhere, let's hope it's good because I'm hungry—and we turned around and pulled in to the parking lot.
A fonda is a specific thing in Mexico, and a rare export to the United States. It's sort of the Mexican equivalent of a Midwestern cafe called "Pop's Place", a place with cheap food, a step up from homestyle cooking.
Outside were signs with words unfamiliar to the mavens of the El Torito-Acapulco-Chevy's crowd: pechuga tuza, huasteco, aporreadillo, mole de olla. Excellent sign.
The place was busy. Even better. We walked in, sat down, chatted with the lady of the house (who hails from a northeastern suburb of Mexico City called Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, which is so impossible to pronounce that even its denizens just call it Neza) and ordered.
Pambazo de papa y chorizo, a typical Mexico City-style snack, is a soft bolillo roll dipped in red chile sauce, filled with potato and spicy sausage filling, then grilled and pressed, like the wayward, illegitimate child of a French dip and a panino. While there are better pambazos in town, the chile sauce used for the dip was very good, smoky and earthy, with a deep chile burn that started toward the back of the mouth, and the bread was surprisingly soft and fluffy.
Quesadilla de hongos was a homemade corn tortilla pressed around mozzarella cheese and sautéed sliced mushrooms. As a rule, I don't care for white button mushrooms (champignons de Paris to my fellow francophones) because they generally taste more of water than of mushroom, and so I asked if there was any huitlacoche. No huitlacoche, came the reply, but try the mushrooms, they're very good—and they were. Sliced just thickly enough to lend a meaty presence to the snack, well-seasoned, and most importantly, not logged with water or oil.
Just about every beef-eating cuisine in the world has tumbled at one point or another to the fact that the meat of the cow lends itself masterfully to being dried. Drying beef concentrates the flavour and preserves the food. Eating cecina, which is simply air-dried beef cured with nothing but salt and sometimes powdered chiles, satisfies some primal caveman instinct, and I'm a sucker for it in any form.
Huasteco, the chosen cecina dish, was the closest thing that came to a combination plate: an entire roasted nopal (cactus paddle), topped with a long section of cecina (dried beef), then with slices of avocado. A salad took up part of the plate, plus a serving of rice and a pile of refried beans with blocks of queso fresco on top. The cecina was outstanding, slightly salty, tough and yet tender (if that sounds like an oxymoron, you just haven't had cooked cecina). The nopal was very good, with a texture like roasted chile.
Mole de la olla has absolutely nothing to do with the Oaxacan or Pueblan sauces with dozens of ingredients; this is Mexican beef stew in a pot (una olla). This was an outstanding dish: tender beef chuck, large pieces of potato, a piece of elote (corn on the cob) and large pieces of zucchini swimming in a rich bouillon flecked with chile. This is the soup you want on a cold, rainy night; this is the soup you'll crave when you're under the weather.
Chiles rellenos de picadillo were two green California chiles roasted, de-seeded and stuffed with a mince of beef, corn, peas, carrots, olives, tomatoes and a raisin or two, then dipped in egg batter, deep-fried and laid in a pool of yellow gravy made from tomatoes and Knorr seasoning. While these were quite tasty, the gravy overwhelmed the taste of the filling. This could be fixed by using less Knorr seasoning in the gravy, or by amping up the flavour in the picadillo and using spicier chiles for stuffing.
Enchiladas de mole (what should probably have been called enmoladas) were homemade tortillas dipped in a serviceable black mole and stuffed with chicken, then topped with shredded lettuce, cheese and crema mexicana. My first reaction was that the mole was not strong enough, but this turned out to be a boon, since it let the tortilla and chicken shine through.
The refried beans served with the huasteco on the first visit were of a surpassing excellence, thick, with just a little bit of snap, and helped along a lot by a generous hand with seasoning. They were served with blocks of queso fresco on top, a soft cheese along the lines of Greek manouri, but saltier and tangier. The beans on the second visit were still above average, but not as wonderful as the first visit's.
The tortillas, however, are a star at this place. Handmade from fresh masa, these are nearly twice as thick as supermarket tortillas, but a few shades lighter and orders of magnitude better in taste. They managed to be soft—they folded perfectly despite their unusual girth—but still toothsome. They're sold in dozens (a dozen is $3.50, an astonishing price compared to the plastic bags at any Mexican market, but still worth it) should the need for a heartier corn masa-based wrap manifest itself.
Fonda La Meche offers a list of made-to-order aguas frescas with fresh fruit: while lemon and melon were quite good (the melon will be amazing in summer), the best was mango, with tiny pieces of mango clogging the straw like wayward tapioca balls.
Still on my list to try: the aporreadillo, which is an unholy-looking mash of cecina, eggs, chile and onions; caldo tlalpeño, a spicy chicken soup; enchiladas toluqueñas, stuffed with cheese, potatoes and chorizo; and pechuga tuza, a Mexican dead ringer for chicken parmigiana, only with chile sauce instead of tomato sauce and served atop French fries. They serve menudo and Hidalgo-style lamb barbacoa on weekends, and several licuadoras aztecas (literally, Aztec blenders) went out while were eating: volcanic stone grinding bowls called molcajetes, filled with grilled cactus paddle, chicken, steak, sausage and queso fresco.
Service is extremely friendly, bilingual (though the signs on the walls are resolutely Spanish-only, warning people to keep their children from trashing the place, that subsequent orders from tables will go into the ticket queue in the order received, not to forget anything and not to bring in outside food or drink). Pay at the counter when you're done.
Prices, while not exactly the rock-bottom prices of fondas in Mexico, are commensurate with the amount and quality of the food. Main courses are mostly in the $7-$10 range; pambazos and tortas are $4-$6; quesadillas with those amazing tortillas are $5 for three. Fonda La Meche serves breakfast, too, eggs and chilaquiles in various permutations.
Fonda La Meche is exactly what it should be: a place to get just-like-Mami's cooking. It isn't fancy, it doesn't cater to people who look like me, and the cooking is honest and straightforward. It's a great find and I look forward to many more casual, friendly meals there.
Fonda La Meche
7483 Katella Ave. (corner of Western)
Stanton, CA 90680
Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Though the takeout menus advertise Tuesday breakfast and lunch hours, signs in the fonda state that they are closed on Tuesdays.
Fonda La Meche
7483 Katella Ave, Stanton, CA 90680