Mexican food is hitting the big stage in New Zealand. Tacos are hotly gaining on burgers and pizzas in terms of its appearances on bar menus, and places like Mexicali and Mad Mex are bringing the fight to shopping mall foodcourts throughout the country. So it takes a bit of courage for a place like Fonda Latina to, A, open up shop in the old spot that Embargo occupied for many a years in Garden Place, and B, set up a South American/Latin American eatery without putting any of the usual Mexican dealios on the menu. Not trying to be insensitive, but this is just the reality for eateries that bravely try to introduce people to something new. Ten years ago, I worked in a Japanese restaurant, and we had at least one person a week who came in, studied the menu for ten minutes, and asked me if we serve fried rice and sweet and sour pork.
So no, you won’t find carnitas on a wheat tortilla. Or burritos served with a scoop of guac on the side. Or guac, period. What you will find is menu filled with various permutations of arepas, masa, plantain and grilled meat. You’ll also find many main items sitting in the sub-$30 category, which is a rarity these days since that ceiling broke a few years ago. The menu is a delight; a thoughtful collection that balances the exotic and the familiar. They don’t cop out by yielding to the showy and extravagant items, and content to embrace the homely, comforting, soul food-like nature without trying too hard to dress it up as what it isn’t.
The interior is colourful, with a few ornaments and knick-knacks dotted about. Of prominence is the giant hammock that hangs across the wall, visible from both the main floor and the mezzanine. Every hue is intense and heavy, and while I’m not sure if it’s the best look, it’s probably what they were aiming for. They make multi-purpose use of the venue, with a Mexican/Chilean dance party taking place the following Saturday, we’re told. (So yeah, fine, I guess they will be serving tacos after all.)
The empanadas have a nice crispy and flaky shell, and the dusting of cornmeal on the outside adds to the textural contrast to the filling. We went with beef, and while the potato was tender and soft, the beef was perhaps a little… Pasty? It kinda reminded me of canned corned beef, and I think minced or finely diced steak cut was the way to go. The salsa picada is fresh, and cuts through the flavour rather nicely.
Then the Cazuela de Fríjoles, served with rice, avocados, and a patacón. It’s made with red beans instead of black beans like the usual Brazilian feijoada, and served with a little more liquid, but that’s not to say it’s lacking in meaty goodness. It’s a hearty and generous serving with sausages and chicharrón as listed on the menu. I expected this to be stewed pork rinds, but it was a pleasant surprise to find big chunks of pork belly. Succulent with an effortless bite, the crispy skin also withstands the thick beany broth surprisingly well. It’s well balanced, with that stick-to-your-ribs unctuousness and a tiny touch of heat that’s best described as a tickle. As someone who absolutely loves a good traditional feijoada, this one’s a winner.
A sample of the grill menu, in this case the chicken, is also rather positive. It’s served with an arepa, a baked potato with sour cream, and some chimichurri. I can’t remember the last time I’ve bought or made myself the humble baked potato, and I don’t know why, because it’s great. Out of the kitchen, the meat is cooked well, which unfortunately becomes well-done after it sits on the hot plate for more than a couple of minutes. The arepa too becomes rather brittle and dry over time. The chimichurri is fantastic, with all the goodness of garlic and herbs condensed into a pungent, delectable paste.
Sure, if I sit here and keep thinking of other things to rag on about, I could probably do it. The wine list is just okay. The patacón was a bit dry. We would have liked side plates for our appetiser. They served too much delicious food I didn’t have room for churros. But the fact that I’m nitpicking like this hopefully sends a message: that this isn’t just a place that does exotic and foreign for the sake of exotic and foreign, and seriously deserves your attention. I know they’ll get mine for the second time next week, and they would have on Saturday – had I not been born with two left feet and hips that definitely do lie.
Fonda Latina is located at 11 Garden Place in the CBD. They’re open Tuesday to Sunday for Lunch and Dinner; check website for details.