Real Mexican, Way East of the Border

Food & Drink - December 20th, 2002
tokyoweekender_Mexican restaurant

by Charles J. Waggon

“Raw fish and chicken with chocolate sauce sure ain’t my idea of Mexican food!”

Poor Binky. She’s one of those people who’s most informative when she’s least informed. I knew right away she’d been to an authentic Mexican restaurant. She and hubby Fred are my neighbors, and Fred works with me in the Tokyo office of General Strategics.

Being from Davenport, Iowa, excuses them for not knowing much about Mexican food. Most Mexican she eats is outta joints what give your kids a plastic toy. Fred’s idea of going South of the Border is going south on a bucket of margaritas, followed by a steak fajita big as your arm, stuffed with avocados and extra sour cream. Ain’t no way they’d know about ceviche and chick­en mole.

Ceviche is fresh raw fish or shellfish, marinated in lime-juice, peppers and cilantro —a Yucatan specialty, though you can find it most anywhere in Mexico near the ocean. Chicken mole is a specialty of the southern state of Oaxaca. It’s grilled chicken topped with a thick sauce made from a zil­lion kinds of peppers, nuts, spices and other things, one of them being cocoa, which origi­nated in that part of the world. Heavenly.

Apparently, Binky had no idea she’d been taken some­place serving Mexican Mexican food. She and Fred were guests of the Ishiguros, a well-traveled Japanese couple who’d spent more than their fair share of time in Mexico.

“I guess you can’t expect Japanese people to know a burrito from a taco,” old Fred hardee-harred. Dumb as a fence-post.

“Now where’dja say that place was?” I asked. Binky had no idea she was giving me the greatest chow tip I’d had all year.

“On Meiji-dori, about a block past the shrine where they have the Japanese flea market. On your right, halfway up the hill. It’s way down in a basement. I think they named it after Henry Fonda, or was it Jane?” Binky recalled from her hazy memory.

Luckily I got the chance a few days later, when Kumiko dragged me to some get-togeth­er in Takadanobaba at some pub called the Fiddle-dee or Fiddle-dum or something like that. The joint was right off Meiji-dori, so when we left, it was a straight shot by taxi with Kumiko and her friends to the Mexican joint, which turned out to be named Fonda de la Magrugada. You don’t even get all the way down the stairs before you feel like you’ve slipped across the border into Mexico.

The decor is full-on Mexican, huge space with lots of rooms, a couple of bars on different levels and a strolling trio of mariachi musicians straight from Mexico. Ordered a plate of ceviche (¥1,400) and an ice-cold Bohemia, a light beer that goes well with fish, beats Corona hands down. Then some sopes (¥800), soft thick handmade corn tortillas with beans and cheese. Kumiko and her girlfriends got the guacamole and chips (¥900), mild and slightly chunky.

After the appetizers, I switched beers, going for the dark Negra Modelo, which stands up better to the spices and meats. We got La Sabana (¥2,900), flattened out beef­steak with green tomatillo sauce, refried beans, avocados and a huge slab of melted cheese. And Sopa de Mariscos (¥1,300), a tomato-chipotle-pepper soup with hunks of shrimp, squid and mussels. And Camarones al Tequila (¥1,800), shrimps braised in a spicy creamy sauce with tequi­la, giving it a smoky edge.

And, Charlie Jake’s favorite, Pollo con Mole Ciruela (¥2,300), chicken smothered in the house mole, a complex meaty gravy­like sauce of ground sesame seeds, chiles, cocoa and other spices. And a huge basket full of fresh, soft corn tortillas to sop up all the sauces.

If all that sounds too native, you can also find tacos and enchiladas on their huge menu.

For drinks, I usually stick with darker Mexican beers, though most folks come for the huge selection of margaritas or tequila shots. Kumiko got stuck on the margaritas, so she didn’t notice the wine reefer in the dining room, full of vin­tages from Chile and Argentina, most going for around ¥3,500 to ¥4,800.

For full-on Mexican, no place else in Tokyo even comes close. But it all don’t come cheap. Figure on about ¥8,000 a head. But that’ll do you till you get to your favorite Mexican joint back home.

Fonda de la Magrugada
Villa Bianca B1
2-33-12 Jingumae Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 5410-6288
Open nightly from 5:30 p.m. until 4 a.m. daily
www.fonda-m.com