Thursday, July 18, 2024

This in-the-kitchen chef’s table is not just an ode to Mexico but one of Long Beach’s best kept secrets


Tucked into the back of Rosemallows bar in DTLB is a Mexican gem I’ve long praised, where the scents of freshly nixtamalized blue corn and huitlacoche, squash blossoms and barbacoa waft toward the pool table from the back corner. It is one of the most beautiful reflections of Mexico proper—and the greatness of Fonda Tobalá is not necessarily in its ability to directly mimic the scents and tastes of Mexico but because its owners, Chef Manuel Bañuelos and his wife Fernanda, have been unabashed at harnessing their nostalgia for their home city, Guadalajara, while making sure their home here in Long Beach gets to share that experience with them.

And before I dive into their latest endeavor—an astoundingly cute, genuinely warming four-top table situated within the actual kitchen of Fonda, where a two-on-four dinner between Manuel, Fernanda, and guests takes place—it is extremely difficult to have a talk about Manuel without showcasing the sheer breadth of his gastronomical reach.

Born in Guadalajara, trained internationally and heading everything from fine dining in London to earning his stripes as making one of the best torta ahogadas in the region when he headed Balam in Lynwood, the food of Bañuelos has been consistently clean and consistently varied in terms of influences.But with Fonda Tobalá, a genuinely familial effort that brought Manuel back to the stomachs of Long Beach mid-pandemic, he has returned to Mexico full and proper, from those mind-blowing torta ahogadas (this time with a birote from Gusto Bread) to masterfully created cueritos tostadas that remind me of the food stalls in plazas throughout Jalisco.

Fonda Tobalá’s food is particularly special for Long Beach—and it is felt with the first scent one gets when eating the food, that earthy waft of corn.Using heirloom blue corn shipped from Oaxaca, Fernanda notes that part of Manuel’s approach to Fonda Tobalá has been a much deeper return to roots than expected—and that includes handling the nixtamalization process himself.

“Because of course he does the nixtamal, right?” Fernanda once told me when I first experienced his quesadilla frita, chuckling and also noting he hand-mortars his chiles for his saliva-inducing salsa macha as well.This “doing his own nixtamal” means that he soaks—along with his mother-in-law, Laura—the dried corn pulled from the stock in an alkaline solution, allowing the hardened shells that surround each kernel to be removed so that it can then be dried again, and broken down into a powder via a stone mortar. That masa then gets turned into a dough and made into tortillas.

This arduous process is a reflection of Manuel’s nostalgia—both beautiful and painful—as the epicenter for Fonda. Of course, Fonda Tobalá’s menu is extremely approachable: fired quesadillas and sorta ahogadas are far from challenging in terms of Mexican cuisine; their quality and execution makes it even harder for patrons to pass up.But Manuel wants to show the truly vast, seemingly impossible-to-determine breadth of Mexican cuisine. That means the use of chapulines, or crickets. Showing off the variety and diversity of Mexican corn. Taking scallops from the coast of Michoacán and throwing them on a tostada.

“I am not gonna lie: I often feel nostalgic for my home back in Guadalajara—and the best way for me to help cure that nostalgia is to create food honoring that home,” Manuel said. “This is what the chef’s table is really about. This is me inviting you into my kitchen—literally—and sharing my food with you that I just couldn’t do in the walk-up service that Fonda currently caters to.

“And it isn’t just sharing Manuel’s food; it is also sharing his longing for home while ogling at the man’s ability both in a kitchen and interpretation of Mexican food.There’s a bowl of esquites—kernels of corn that vary in color, size, and texture—sitting in a corn broth bath and topped with squash, a chapulín crema, and a handful of whole, citruses-out chapulines. (Yes, those are crickets—and they’re wonderful.)

There’s a tostada that is, well, more than a tostada: Raw, creamy scallops are delicately placed between squash blossoms and a spread of salsa before being drizzled with asientos, or the brown bits that can be scraped from the bottom of a carnitas pot. The result is an entirely new interpretation of surf-and-turf, where the umami of the scallops and the fatty saltiness of the asientos create a savory bomb that is unlikely like any tostada you’ve head.

And all within the tiny-but-mighty kitchen of Fonda Tobalá itself, where you hear Manuel and Fernanda talk about the food you’re eating, paired with stories of a couple that deeply loves Long Beach as much as they do Mexico.It is a beautifully Long Beach experience, with little pretense, immense flavor, and a warmth that is perfectly fitting for our post-pandemic anxiety and blues. In other words: Go.

To make reservations, direct message Fonda Tobalá through their Instagram.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.


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