Just a stone’s throw from Antigua’s busy Central Park, a trio of restaurant branches make up the city’s definitive foodie destination for Guatemalan cuisine. I’m talking about the famous La Fonda de la Calle Real. After the original 5th Avenue location (opened in 1975) achieved great success, two more branches opened; one just around the corner (1991) and the third directly across the street (2000). It’s the kind of place marked in giant letters on every tourist map, appearing in every guide book, and It was the very first restaurant recommended to me on arrival. So I decided to check it out, and see what all the hype was about.
As soon as I arrived in Antigua, I headed for the third incarnation of La Fonda, known for the romantic ambiance of its courtyard where customers dine beneath a canopy of lanterns facing an open kitchen. The almost-too-large menu reads like a map of Guatemala, listing specialties divided by region. This makes for a great intro to Guatemalan cuisine, perfect for those looking for basic insight into the country’s most notable dishes.
One of La Fonda’s specialties is the queso fundido, a melted, gooey cheese fondue prepared from a mix of local farmer’s cheeses served with crispy homemade breadsticks and a terrific green salsa picante. Who can pass up a bowlful of melted cheese? I sampled the daily fundido, made with seasonal mushrooms and washed it down with Gallo, a popular local beer.
Because I hit La Fonda on my very first night in Guatemala, I found the sheer size of the menu to be overwhelming and totally exciting at the same time. Thank goodness for the restaurant’s take on the sampler platter. In the “Antigua” section (I wanted to keep it local) there was the Plato Típico, containing one chile relleno, a choice of pupusa (pork cracklings!), plantains, refried beans, rice and a healthy slice of white farmer’s cheese.
La Fonda de la Calle Real has a great thing going for it: location, location, location. Not only are all branches within a block of each other, they’re all within one block of the city’s Central Park. A few days later I found myself hungry in the center of Antigua, and decided to go back to La Fonda for more local flavor. This time, I tried the original location. Once a townhouse, this two-level restaurant is markedly smaller than the other branches, but exudes character and a welcoming country-kitchen vibe.
The menu at the restaurant’s original location is a bit smaller, but only slightly different from the larger branches. It’s missing pupusas for one thing, but I only noticed because I had pupusas on the brain. I’m glad I had to make a different appetizer choice, because this dish seriously blew my mind:
Simple is often good. This incredible dish (pictured above) is nothing more than refried beans, farmer’s cheese and fresh sour cream served with hot tortillas, but at the same time, it is so much more. The sour cream was farm-fresh: thick and creamy, like the finest crème fraiche with an attitude. The beans were rich, with a deep, meaty flavor. The farmer’s cheese was snappy and sour with salty overtones. Mixing these ingredients in a steaming tortilla (with an extra dollop of the cream) resulted in a kind of food-induced euphoria.
For a main course I opted for a chicken tamal colorado. Named for the red color of the tomato sauce base, the tamal is prepared with a maize dough, stuffed with spiced chicken and boiled in a plantain leaf wrapper for hours. The quintessential Central American comfort food.
Another delicious example of La Fonda’s sampler platters is the Comal de Recados. Guatemala is famous for its stews. This dish, perfect for the more adventurous diner, is comprised of three popular regional specialties: Kak’ik, a spiced tukey stew, Pepian, chicken slow-cooked in a peppery tomato sauce and a traditional savory pork head and liver stew.
La Fonda is as easy on the stomach as it is to locate one of the restaurant’s three branches. Normally I’d be running from a “traditional” mini-chain hawking local specialties to tourists, but somehow La Fonda de la Calle Real got under my skin. In a multi-cultural melting pot like Antigua, La Fonda provides a sincere and tasty introduction to Guatemalan cuisine.
2010 Mileage Total: 104017