Fonda El Refugio is a name that you will likely come across when looking at guides to Mexico City. The small restaurant in Zona Rosa, a popular tourist destination, has been serving authentic Mexican food for more than 57 years. Politicians, artists, writers and all kinds of celebrities have dined here over all those decades. Renowned writer Octavio Paz chose this restaurant’s food for his banquet with the Mexican president after receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in 1990.
However, in recent years the quality of the food took a turn for the worse, and this iconic restaurant’s reputation took a major hit. “A little neglect; we rested on our laurels for a long time,” said Claudio Hall, grandson of the founder and the current manager, to Nicholas Gilman in an interview a few months ago. “And like all places, restaurants in particular, if you’re not taking care of every little detail, things start to go downhill. That’s what happened to us.”
After that interview the food community in Mexico started talking about the comeback of this classic high-end restaurant, and we decided to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, right after comida time and before the evening rush. The venue, a small but beautifully decorated building with gleaming copper cookware and Mexican art on the walls, was almost empty. Just a couple of tables were occupied by foreign tourists, and the efficient and attentive staff immediately showed us to our table.
Our first order was a classic margarita. It came in a glass whose small size belied the drink’s big wallop – which is just the way a good margarita should be. We chased that with an order of guacamole, a platter of mini quesadillas, sopes and picaditas and a plate of escamoles.
All of the appetizers were flavorful and perfectly cooked. However, the escamoles, or ant eggs, which were served with nopales (cooked and julienned cactus paddles) and handmade tortillas, was our favorite among them. The picaditas, round corn patties topped with a delicious green salsa, were not far behind, though.
From the main dishes, we chose the chiles en nogada, which is also in season this time of year. Even though we’ve had better chiles in the city, Fonda El Refugio’s dish of battered and fried peppers bathed in that sweet, rich walnut sauce wins an honorable mention. Our favorite main was the lengua en escabeche, pickled beef tongue. The meat was tender and perfectly seasoned – we reached for the plate again and again.
Fonda El Refugio might’ve had a bad streak over the past years, but based on our visit, better days are undoubtedly ahead.