Bright shades of clashing yellow and blue paint throb in the blinding summer sun. The tropical color scheme of Fonda Dona Maria's exterior blurs into a fuzzy-edged optical illusion in my bleary eyes. Even with sunglasses I have to look the other way to maintain my equilibrium. It was a long night, and so far, it's been a rough morning.
When the subject of breakfast came up, my girlfriend Red suggested we check out this Mexican restaurant on Tidwell, just north of the Heights. It used to be a charming little joint with decent food. But in the last few months, the formerly nondescript building has been transformed into a colossal palacio with mission-style towers, graceful archways and an expansive outdoor patio. The construction is still ongoing; we step over extension cords and building materials as we approach the door.
Entering Fonda Dona Maria, you feel like you got off I-45 at the Guadalajara exit. The walls are bedecked with a jaw-dropping display of Mexican pottery. There are clay cazuelas the color of flower pots, and talavera pieces in intricately painted blue, green and gold hang all over the walls. The cool-tiled space is decorated in an orange-and-blue color scheme that mimics the pottery. Old-fashioned black fans churn the air from the high ceilings. Countless black-and-white celebrity photos line the walls. There are pleasant yellow vinyl tablecloths and old radios on high shelves. It's one of the most colorful Mexican restaurants in Houston, and we are the only gringos in the place.
Five giant bottles filled with agua fresca line the drink station; the flavors are tamarindo, watermelon, horchata, jamaica and artificially bright green limeade. Red orders an iced tea, and I get a strawberry licuado (a strawberry milk shake without the ice cream) to ease us into the breakfast spirit. Sporting purple stamps on our wrists and dull headaches behind our sunglasses -- souvenirs from our night of the Iguanas at the Continental Club -- we're looking for breakfast dishes with restorative powers.
I opt for menudo, that primal soup of honeycomb tripe that native Mexicans recommend for la cruda. The Fonda Dona Maria version is a little more pungent than usual, and it's not a very appetizing smell. But I choke down a few pieces of tripe with some of the chopped raw onions and jalapeños provided, and my stomach begins to calm down. The menudo I like best comes with very soft tripe and lots of posole. This one features soft tripe and very little else. But the waitress is happy to oblige when I ask for a bowl of hominy on the side. The soup improves immeasurably with this starchy addition. Convinced the chiles are making me feel better, I scrape the entire pile of chopped jalapeños into the soup. A couple of fiery bites later, my forehead is covered in sweat, and a tingling sensation radiates from my stomach all the way to my thighs. I think I'm getting high on jalapeños. It sure beats a hangover.
Red goes for huevos mexicanos, eggs scrambled with onions, tomatoes and chiles. Her eggs are served with a side of fluffy refried beans and a unique version of chilaquiles made with tortillas chips cooked in chile sauce and topped with crumbly white Mexican cheese. The white corn tortillas are handmade and wonderfully chewy.
"These beans are awesome," Red smiles. "Lots of lard!" Her theory is that grease fosters recovery on the morning after, and these refrieds are providing a heaping dose of relief.
When we return to Fonda Dona Maria for dinner a few days later, a manager with a pencil-thin mustache and a black guayabera shirt escorts us to our table. He asks if he can be of any assistance with the menu. This is a nice gesture, since the rest of the staff doesn't speak English. I ask him about a sign that's just been painted on the side of the building. It reads carne en su jugo, which means "meat in its juice."
"It's a specialty of Guadalajara, where the owner of the restaurant comes from," he tells us. "He went down there recently to get some new recipes for the menu. We haven't started serving it yet, but as soon as the new kitchen expansion is completed, we will."
I ask him about the renovation. It started in May, he says, and is almost complete. The finished interior boasts a beautiful new bar, but the liquor license is still being processed, so there are no mixed drinks yet. Out the back windows, we see a gazebo and other outdoor structures that accessorize an unfinished landscape. The restaurant has been here for ten years and is still under the same ownership, the manager tells us.
We decide to start with a seafood cóctel and a couple of cervezas. Since Red isn't big on octopus and squid, we go for the Campechana cóctel, which contains boiled shrimp and raw oysters in the usual Mexican cocktail sauce of ketchup and citrus juice. The shrimp are all different sizes, and they're a little too squishy for my taste. The oysters are just fine. And although the sauce is too sweet, we doctor it with a little more lime juice and some Valentina hot sauce until it suits our tastes. While we're eating the shrimp, we notice a waiter carrying a whole fried red snapper, which looks awfully good. But there are so many great places for mariscos around Houston (Tampico Seafood and Restaurant on Airline Drive, for one) that I decide to stick with the meat dishes of Guadalajara.
Since the carne en su jugo isn't available, the manager recommends the pork in chile sauce. I order the costillitas de puerco en salsa, pork ribs simmered in a cascabel and tomatillo sauce. The meat is fabulous, slow-simmered until it falls apart, and well soaked in the excellent chile sauce. The only problem is that the ribs have been cut into one-inch pieces, and every bite seems to contain a bit of bone or cartilage. I wrap the meat, along with lots of refried beans and chile sauce, into the freshly made white corn tortillas, and it makes a spectacular taco -- except that I have to fish the inedible bits out of my mouth. Next time, I'll go with the pork tips in chile sauce or the carne adobada and avoid the bones. (Although no one ever said pork ribs were supposed to be easy.)
Red tries a Jalisco combination plate, which the manager described as one of the Tex-Mex offerings on the menu. Curiously, Tex-Mex seems to be the one thing Fonda Dona Maria doesn't do well. When the plate first arrives, the cheese enchilada is wrapped in a flour tortilla (an innocent mistake, perhaps, since Red asked for flour tortillas on the side). We send it back and get a proper Tex-Mex cheese enchilada in a corn tortilla. The taco and tostada are topped with your choice of chicken or fajita meat. The tortillas are fried on the premises, but the platter is nothing to write home to McAllen about.
The chips aren't very good either, and up until recently, the place had never even served margaritas. It's a little comical to fault a local Mexican restaurant for not doing Tex-Mex well. But this place simply does a better job on slow-simmered meat dishes, Mexican breakfasts and other typical south-of-the-border fare than it does with the stuff Houstonians are used to. Which means you have to approach the menu with a completely different strategy. Try the guisados, the pork dishes and the beef for dinner, and forget about the combo platters.
Until now, Fonda Dona Maria had served an overwhelmingly Hispanic clientele. With its renovations and menu changes, I suspect it will soon attract a wider audience. No doubt a different crowd will bring changes, for both the better and the worse. For the time being, though, this place doesn't speak English. It's very refreshing. Stop by soon, before we ruin the place.
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