When you can walk into a place and immediately recognize the aroma of a pot of pinto beans on the stovetop, the piquancy of fire-roasted peppers or even the masa in a warmed tortilla, you know you are experiencing some of the great contributions made by Mexico to the culinary lifestyles of the United States and beyond.
Like language, food is inextricably linked to our identity and memory. This was my experience the first time I visited Fontova Mexican Restaurant. The fragrances carried me back to a youthful summer spent in the eastern peninsula of the Yucatan, where my hosts, a farmer and a weaver with 10 children, cooked with celebration and passion. Daily-made tortillas were filled with slices of perfectly ripe avocado, guajillo (pepper), queso (cheese) and cuitlacoche (a grotesque looking, but delicately flavored accident of nature known as the corn mushroom). Enchiladas were prepared with crab or duck. Mole sauces were as complex and diverse as the regional curries of India. And tight little tamal packages were wrapped in banana leaves as well as the more familiar dried cornhusks.
It was this early exposure to a cuisine so full of unique and extraordinary flavors that sparked my romance with Mexican food, and has subsequently led to the despair I feel at the insipid flavor and mistaken ideas often disseminated to Americans.
But with a local Hispanic community growing quickly, a number of taquerias and restaurants have opened in recent years around Greater Cincinnati that are slowly breaking down the knowledge barrier previously reinforced by the Taco Hell concept of a few inexpensive ingredients that don't even begin to represent the breadth and variety of Mexican cooking.
"We make family recipes, all homemade and authentic," says Pedro Fontova, owner of Fontova Mexican Restaurant. The ex-bullfighter and "beach boy" credits his mother, whose portrait watches over the small kitchen, with teaching him the recipes native to his home of Acapulco. His travels through Mexico as a bullfighter taught him regional flavors and methods that sealed his interest and respect for Mexican food.
"There is a story in what you are tasting," he says after hearing me emit an appreciative moan for the dish in front of me. "The styles, the spices and herbs, the history of the Mexican people are all on that plate."
I try to taste the royal marriages, invasions, emigration, immigration and advanced innovations of the Aztecs, but what I end up tasting is simple deliciousness: chopped tilapia mixed with a mole of herbs, garlic and peppers; the dark pink-brown of puréed beans, unadulterated by additional fillers, baked tortilla chips and rice. I'm surprised and delighted by this "Fish Plate" ($6.99) and hesitant to share it with my dinner companion, despite that I had previously insisted on communal dining as we perused the menu — it's one of the few Mexican dishes I've experienced in Cincinnati that reminded me of the food I ate in the coastal cities of the Yucatan.
But I'll need to stick to the trade agreement since I have a keen interest in the green mole sauce of roasted jalapenos, garlic, onions and cilantro that flavors his chicken tamale "casserole" ($7.99); rather than packages, shredded chicken, mole and corn tortilla are mixed together.
"We slow cook all of our meat in the salsa for eight hours. That's why it is so tender and flavorful," says Fontova when we inquire about the tamal plate.
If you've purchased packages of flour tortillas from a local Kroger store, you've heard of Pedro Fontova. For nearly 30 years he's been making and selling the Fontova brand of corn, white and whole-wheat tortillas with the secret ingredient printed on the front of the package: You can be as happy as you make up your mind to be.
The modest menu at his restaurant reflects the same straightforward approach of a few things done well. In addition to the "out of this world" fish plate (Fontova's own emphatic description) and chicken tamales, burritos, soft corn tacos, quesadilla, taco salad, chicken soup and salsas make up the entire menu.
"We hand-roast every tomato, pepper and onion and bake our own tortilla chips with no added oil," says Fontova. "I love this food, and I want people to come in and taste for themselves. They don't like it? I give them money-back guarantee — no questions asked," he adds.
His energy and enthusiasm seem sincere beyond any marketing savvy. "It takes passion, dedication and a relationship with the foods you are working with," he says.
And perhaps the wisdom expressed on a simple package of flour tortillas. ©
Fontova Mexican Restaurant
Go: 336 Scott St., Covington
Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Payment: Cash, Visa, MasterCard
Red Meat Alternatives: Cheese quesadilla, nachos, salsas and guacamole
Accessibility: Front door
Other: Popular for business lunch catering with free delivery to Covington and downtown Cincinnati