Sunday was basically a wash. I had a great run along the Mill Valley bike path. The sun was out. I felt strong. Stopped by Peet’s for a mid-morning latte on the way home, took a hot shower, watered the lawn and got ready to head over to the East Bay with my girls. Then… the plumbing disaster that ended up consuming the rest of the day. Suffice it to say there was lots of water, numerous soaking towels, a $1000 plumber (who happened to be an expert on black widows), and an afternoon down the drain–literally. So after napping a bit and ruminating about the Sunday I’d never get back, my curly-haired traveling companion and I hopped in the car and started driving with no clear sense of where we would go. Driving through Albany, it hit us: Fonda! Don’t they have an all-day happy hour? Weren’t they on the 100 Best List from the SF Chronicle?
Yes and yes. Fonda is an interesting marriage of rustic and industrial. Dark woods, dewey yellow paint, dim lighting, and a hatched big-beam ceiling. All this joined with funky metal tables, an upstairs loft for diners wanting to be set back away from the bustle a bit, and large warp-around windows. It’s almost two concepts, but it works. Everything but the booths. You sit down and immediately reminsice about last week’s Iyengar class and how much your grandma told you not to slouch. Stiff, firm, and unforgiving.
We began where all good things begin: drinks. It’s always amusing when people describe the strong drinks at a restaurant and I end up having to order an extra shot so I can actually taste the alcohol. Not at Fonda. I ordered the Cachaca Drop, reminscient of a Lemon Drop without the cloyingly sweet aftertaste. Cachaca is a Brazilian liquor like Rum except that it’s made from a distillation of sugar cane, whereas Rum’s made Molasses. Enough about the particulars. It was a refreshing summery drink with a good strong kick that helped me to ease into that stiff booth, just a little. My partner in crime tried the Nahuatl’s Punch: a blend of rum, lime and pineapple juices, and 7-up. It reminded me a little bit of what we’d mix up in high school using cheap ingredients to mask the taste of alcohol. Good then (what wasn’t?), a little too perky now.
There were so many things we wanted to try on the menu, but we stuck with the chicken flautas with salsa molcajete, the Oaxacan black beans, the fresh housemade corn tamale with Early Girl Salsa, and the cucumber & cherry tomato salad. The chicken flautas were, unfortunately, forgettable. The salsa accompanying them had a fresh fire-roasted flavor, but the actual dish was a bit luke-warm and the chicken was sparse and fatty. The black beans and the cucumber salad are both simple dishes, but were spectacular. When traveling in Ecuador, almost all meals come with black refried beans that have this smoky, almost creamy taste and Fonda has emulated that precisely here. I could eat these every day. The cucumber salad was perfect: grilled onions and queso fresca livened up the crisp cucumbers and summer tomatoes perched amongst a light oregano vinaigrette. Then there was the tamale: sunny, lively, bursting with fresh corn kernels. For dessert, we tried the warm molten chocolate cake. I generally try to avoid the ubiquitous dessert for more interesting options (passion fruit creme brulee or Colombian chocolate ice cream sandwich), but I was reminded that when it comes down to it, who doesn’t love a bit of warm oozing chocolate with big dollops of homemade whipped cream? Sweet, small portion; complex dark flavor.
If I lived in this ‘hood, I’d be here often. It’s open until 12:30 every night and after imbibing a few of those creative cocktails, you could just stumble on home. So although the plumber will be back tomorrow to finish hydro-scrubbing the pipe (huh?!), I’ll rest easy tonight knowing that there’s a place out there that makes you feel like you did something with your day, sampled some fresh and lovingly prepared Nuevo Latin food, and didn’t sacrifice your pay-check to do so. I’ll drink to that.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.