Back to the Future: Fonda el Refugio

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.

“Grandmother never touched a stove in her life”, explains the affable Hall, who speaks in unaccented English.

“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).

The chile en nogada I sampled was textbook perfectan ideal balance of sweet and savory spice, and the cream sauce did not cloy.

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.

“Andale!,” I say. And I’m sure grandma would agree.

Fonda el Refugio

Liverpool 166, near Insurgentes, Zona Rosa

Metro: Insurgentes

Tel: 5207-2732

Open Monday-Saturday 1-11 p.m. , Sunday until 10.


STRANGE FRUIT: Tropical wonders from the market

Our Mexican summer rainy season brings some of the most visually and gustatorily compelling tropical fruits to market. Most, such as the hot pink Frida-portraited pitahaya or the sugary chico zapote are good for gawking at and eating fresh, nothing more. Others, like the mealy but perfumy mamey or the gooey black zapote negro are better when prepared. Below are a few suggestions.


These beautiful rosa mexicana guayabas (guavas) are common around the State of Mexico. They were in great demand in the pre-conquest era. The Spaniards brought them back and made 'ate' or guava paste which is also available here in markets stalls where chiles and moles are sold. Easy to make is 'agua de guayaba': just throw a few whole guayabas into the blender with some water and a little sugar. Strain and serve.


The mamey, whose beautiful orange-red interior color I once tried to paint my kitchen with middling success, is native to Mexico but common all over Latin-America, especially the Carribean. Currently fashionable amongst creative chefs of so-called Nueva Cocina Mexicana as an ingredient for tarts and créme brulée, it's best consumed at home as a liquado or milkshake. Scoop out the pulp, blend with 2 cups of milk, a little sugar if desired and a few ice cubes.


These delightful fruits, in the city called zapote chico are also native to tropical Mexico - they are grown in low-lying areas near el D.F. as well. Their flesh, tasting like brown sugar, is sublime all by itself.


The zapote prieto or negro is related to the fruit above in name only. It is native to the central Mexican states. The jet black pulp of these odd, squishy anomalies are commonly scooped out of their skins, seeds and membranes discarded, mashed and augmented with orange juice and perhaps a shot of tequila, then eaten with a spoon as dessert. Their preparation makes a mess but will impress your guests.


Nopal cactus fruits are called 'tuna' in Spanish, confusing many visitors. They are full of seeds so make for annoying eating. But an agua preparada de tuna - fruit peeled, in the blender with water, then strained - nothing else - is more refreshing than Blanche Dubois' lemon-Coke. They vary in color from green to yellow to a deep royal crimson.


The agressive looking guanábana contains a docile white custard-like and headily perfumed flesh. It is usually made into a paste, ice cream or agua fresca, but can be consumed as is. But be sure to buy a nice ripe one.


The spectacular pitahaya has been justly celebrated in Mexican still-life painting since colonial times. A cactus fruit native to the Americas, it has become even more popular in Asia and is common in Thai and Malaysian markets. The inner flesh can be bluish-white or deep red. Its taste is unremarkable, somewhat like a kiwi but less acidic. It is simply admired and consumed as is.

Shopping in Mexico is a never-ending mind-blowing experience. Support your local tianguis and/or traditional market.

Text and photos © 2011 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved