1978: a giddily dilapidated, pre-quake Mexico City. I was a fresh-faced college student, here on a mission to study the murals. I strolled through the legendary Zona Rosa, which was already resting on the glamorous laurels of a bygone era, like some aging old-Hollywood diva who hadn’t made a picture in years. I passed the faded Hotel Geneva, which according to my mother, had been home to artists and bohos from around the world.
It was lunchtime. My dog-eared guidebook suggested I eat only in “nice” places for traditional Mexican food and this was it . I remember entering the portal of the Fonda el Refugio with a sense of relief, a feeling that someone’s grandma would take care of me. Little did I realize that she would indeed be there, perhaps minding the books if not the kitchen. The room was cozy, old wood floors and ceiling framing dark colonial style furniture punctuated with bright Frida-like touches. It still is.
I recall the mole verde, a beautiful jade colored sauce whose nutty/minty taste and soft reassuring texture gently cradled a velvety chicken breast. I can smell the heady aroma of roasted corn that wafted from the little basket of hand-made tortillas. The memory of my first dinner at el Refugio is iconic, nostalgic and one of my fondest early Mexican experiences.
But nice dreams suffer, memories fray at the edges. Repeated visits, over the years, to this 57 year-old bastion of Mexican goodwill did not fare so well. It went downhill.
Claudio Hall, grandson of the founder, agrees. Hall’s grandma was neither an indigenous braided countrywoman nor a chef. A glamorous upper-class lady, she was an astute businesswoman who liked the idea of creating an elegant restaurant that served Mexican food. It took off, and during the ‘época de oro’ of the Zona Rosa the Fonda became a hangout for the likes of Cantinflas and Maria Felix.
“Surely the recipes are treasured family secrets?” I ask. “Not a one” he replies. “She was a great collector of classic Mexican cookbooks – we have an amazing library. All our recipes come from books”.
When he returned to Mexico a couple of years ago after a few years in the US, he felt lost at sea and was looking for a job. But he had never thought of going into the family business. “After grandmother passed away the place went downhill. In fact, we were on the brink of bankruptcy. I decided to inject some life back into it, in effect, to save it.” Hall is not a chef. He went back to school to study gastronomy.
Thankfully, he has changed nary a thing on the menu. Classic dishes rule. You’ll find antojitos such as enchiladas, garnachas and sopes, moles, pipianes, chiles rellenos,--you name it, they do it. I was happy to see manchamanteles, that fruity mestizo stew, once a staple in houses that looked just like this (Tuesdays only).
That memorable green mole is offered on Wednesdays. Everything’s done the old-fashioned way: salsas are ground in stone molcajetes, tortillas are hand-pressed. “I didn’t want to change anything,” Hall claims, “just improve and bring back the quality. It was no mean feat: some of the staff have been here for decades and didn’t want to be told what for - old habits are hard to break”.
So, no new concepts, no pretentious 21st century updating. Just better quality raw ingredients, as much as possible locally grown. That isn’t to say the menu won’t offer surprises: there are unusual daily and seasonal specials, as well as mezcal tastings –perhaps one of the few nods to current fashion.
“I hired one chef who insisted on re-inventing everything--he wanted to serve something with foam!
We let him go”, said Claudio.
Fonda el Refugio
Liverpool 166, near Insurgentes, Zona Rosa
Open Monday-Saturday 1-11 p.m. , Sunday until 10.