Chef Roberto Santibañez
When people ask me for my favorite Mexican restaurants in New York City, Fonda
is typically high on my list.
The restaurant’s two locations (in Park Slope and the East Village) are comfortable and cozy, and the menu sticks closely to Central Mexican classics, with some New York flair. I’ve tried and loved Fonda’s cochinita pibil and the braised duck tacos with tomato-habanero cream sauce; the tlacoyo with spring-pea spread and mushrooms is currently on my must-try list.
Chef Roberto Santibañez, who grew up in Mexico City, opens a new restaurant in Brooklyn this fall, after spending the previous few years writing Mexican cookbooks.
Santibañez recently paired up with the California Table Grape Commission on a promotional campaign. I snagged a few minutes with him last week to talk about both grapes and his new place. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation.
What’s so exciting about grapes, anyway?
I think they’re incredibly versatile and useful. I use them a lot, too, in our cooking. They add texture. To me a grape is a very balanced ingredient all in itself, even if it’s a little tart, it’s a great thing to eat. I love them. And you can use them in guacamole and they give crunch and texture. You can cook with them, too. You can make a sauce and cook the grapes in it and it’ll be delicious. And you can roast them.
Grapes aren’t traditionally used in Mexican cooking, though, correct?
It’s an ingredient we always eat, but it’s not something that’s used a lot in cooking, except when it comes to guacamole. They do add grapes to guacamole in the state of Guanajuato. They add grapes, peaches, pomegranate.
Can we go back to the roasting grapes idea? That sounded really interesting.
You can make a salsa with grapes. You can roast grapes and grind them up with garlic and chile de árbol or a chipotle. And if you think of that fruit with everything it provides to the dish, it’s the same as a tomatillo or tomato. It’s actually providing fruit, tartness and sweetness.
You’re opening a new restaurant in Brooklyn, selling Mexican tapas. What is that?
It’s botanas. We’re going to do small plates to share. We’re going to have breads, jamones, chorizos, morcilla. Aceitunas and all that stuff. And there’s going to be great red wines, great aiolis, dips. It’s going to be very worldly, not necessarily focused on Mexico.
Any plans to write another cookbook?
I do. I just wanted to purposely take a little bit of time off, because as you know, right after publishing Rosa’s New Mexican Table, I immediately got into Truly Mexican, and then immediately into Tacos, Tortas and Tamales. I was just sort of taken back a little bit and thought I needed to focus on what’s really bringing me home. It’s our business. Books are fantastic for exposure and they give you an incredible amount of professional satisfaction. But they don’t necessarily make a lot of money. So I needed to regroup with myself and wait a little bit. But there’s a very nice project that I have in the back burner, about Mexico City.
You’ve been in the restaurant industry for awhile now, particularly in New York. What’s one thing you’ve noticed about Mexican food now that’s different when you arrived?
It’s become more and more available. But the wonderful thing about it is not just that it’s become availble in one kind — it’s become available at the super higher-end, lower-level, mid-level. It’s no longer that Mexican food in New York had only a few either very high-end or low-end establishments. Now you have a gamut of them. You can see all sorts of shades and textures, and that’s a wonderful thing.
I have to say, I’m intrigued by this idea of using grapes as tomatoes. I guess I’ll just them on the comal and hope they don’t explode?
Yes. Or put them on the toaster oven, like you would with grape tomatoes, if you’re going to make a salsa. It’s delicious.
Coming next: Roberto Santibañez’s recipe for grape guacamole.