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Back in the day, weary travelers in Spain could make a stop at a village fonda, a type of inn or tavern, for a hearty meal and a place to rest their heads. Today, in Latin America, fonda has a more contemporary meaning, including popular restaurants and cantinas serving food and drinks. Both rely on down-home, no-frills fare. But at Fonda Pepa in Barcelona, chefs Pedro Baño and Paco Benítez have taken this concept to new gastronomic heights. The restaurant has the easygoing vibe of a village canteen, with the flavors of a royal kitchen.

It was the Covid-19 pandemic that gave the Catalan Pedro and Mexican Paco the last little push they needed to jump into a new personal adventure. The pair had spent years working in some of the greatest European kitchens – including Barcelona’s own Caelis and Lluçanes, as well as Noma in Denmark, all restaurants under the Michelin stars’ glow.

“The pandemic made us say: ‘We have to open something!’” Paco tells us. “Sometime before, we were already discussing it and the pandemic just accelerated the decision.” Wishing to take their own chances in such a complicated time, the two gathered up their strength and jumped. They landed in the neighborhood of Gràcia, taking over the recently closed eatery Can Robert and renaming it Fonda Pepa. It’s a long, narrow space with old-school marble tables, a lovely back patio and an open kitchen.

There is more to Pepa than the merging of the chefs’ names (Pe and Pa). Pepa is a colloquial moniker given to the first Spanish constitution from 1812. Thus, ¡Viva la Pepa! (long live Pepa) became a popular exclamation of victory by the people over the monarchy and feudalism. Like that constitution, Fonda Pepa has a populist touch: its recipes – seasonal, traditional Catalan recipes with Mexican influences – are prepared with premium local products that are often bought in neighborhood shops or direct from providers the chefs know personally. There is one hand in the French tradition and another using the flame of a Josper grill oven to bring out a modern touch.

“We cook what we like to eat and what we know how to cook,” Pedro says. Their cooking is well showcased on a short menu of basics. The patatas bravas make an impression with a remarkable hint of chipotle in the sauce. Other notable essentials include the ham and roast beef croquets, cod bunyols (fritters), a rice dish à la presse with prawns, and crispy piglet.

Not to be missed are the seasonal off-menu specials, which are some of the fonda’s most interesting.

The flagship dish is their rich cap i pota (cow’s head and leg) with octopus, served in a compact and gelatinous terrine with splashes of a delicious aioli. The latter is made of roasted garlic, a very aromatic saffron and piparras (Basque spicy green chile). A bouillabaisse is then poured over the cap i pota, right at the table.

Not to be missed are the seasonal off-menu specials, which are some of the fonda’s most interesting. One of our favorites is their riff on “surf and turf” – delectable meatballs served with foie gras and lobster cream. Served with trout roe and cilantro garnishes, the goose liver pâté is bound together in a dish of creamy textures, with a delectable taste of land and sea.

Another unique experience was the lamb chee (a hard-to-find ingredient) prepared with the Josper grill oven and served over a parmentier (soft and creamy mashed potatoes) crowned with celery and watercress. We can’t wait to come back in a few weeks to explore the next crop of seasonal dishes that will arrive with winter.

In a short period of time, the cry of ¡Viva la Pepa! has taken on a new meaning in the Gràcia neighborhood and the people – well, at least those who have experienced Fonda Pepa’s gastronomic touch – are rejoicing.

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