Stoking the flame
Is spontaneity dead? Rather than try a new restaurant simply because it catches your eye as you stroll down the street, now almost everyone carries a device that allows them to quickly identify the best — or at least most popular — restaurants within a half-mile radius. It seems like no one with even a passing interest in food dares dine out without vetting the restaurant online first.
That deliberate, targeted approach might work in favor of La Fogata Grill, hidden as it is downstairs on the north side of the Plaza Mercado. That spot has proven difficult for a number of businesses since the original San Francisco Street Bar & Grill moved on to fancier digs. It’s tantamount to a basement, with no windows and no real natural light except on the faux patio in the building’s atrium.
La Fogata, which means “the bonfire” or simply “the fire,” has got a bead on the food, though. It primarily serves Latin American and New Mexico dishes, and the tacos and pupusas are some of the best I’ve had in town. The red and green chiles could go to the mat with the city’s biggest names.
La Fogata works hard to cheer things up with vibrant red and green walls and colorful, quirky art. Servers wear multi-hued floral-embroidered dresses, everyone is attentive and friendly, and the kitchen works fast. The restaurant offers wine and beer as well as an agave wine margarita and a slightly sweet but sunset-pretty watermelon sangria. Happy hour runs from 3 to 6 p.m. daily.
While you enjoy an aperitif, nosh on the papitas caseras, curly house-made potato chips doused in lime juice and Valentina and dusted with Tajín. It feels like something concocted during a late-night study session in a dorm room, but it’s salty, starchy, tangy, unpretentious goodness.
La Fogata takes advantage of the popular Taco Tuesday meme: On that day, the menu is restricted to tacos. The kitchen makes eight kinds — asada, carnitas, al pastor, tripe, barbacoa, chicken, deshebrada, and vegetable. An order consists of three mix-and-match tacos, each garnished with chopped onion and cilantro, plus a bowl of something hilariously akin to beanie weenies.
We tried six. The mixed vegetables were fresh and well cooked, though a little bland. The al pastor had a mild fruity sweetness, the barbacoa was fall-apart tender, the tripe was rich and fatty, and the chicken was robust and almost gamey. A mariachi band in full regalia contributes to the ambience, though I’m pretty sure the singer, with her impressively powerful voice, doesn’t need a mic for this gig.
La Fogata is open for breakfast, which you can order until 4 p.m. That menu runs the gamut from pancakes to and waffles to chilaquiles and entomatadas. At lunch there are salads and sandwiches and heftier plates like enchiladas, while the dinner menu adds options like shrimp, steak, paella, chile en nogada, and barbacoa de pollo.
The Santa Fe Enchiladas are a fine namesake dish. Two rolled enchiladas (in this case stuffed with pleasantly toothy hunks of carrot, squash, and zucchini), well-seasoned black beans, forgettable fluffy rice, and the requisite iceberg-tomato “salad” are all given a tidy presentation. Both the earthy red and the clean, bright green chile balanced addictively bold flavors and some serious heat.
Pupusas — available as an entrée at lunch or an appetizer at dinner — are impressive. These hearty masa pancakes are light, fluffy, vaguely sweet, and not at all greasy; they’re stuffed with cheese and either black beans or chicharrónes and given a lovely sear on each side. A strapping curtido relish of cabbage, jalapeño, and carrot is blanketed with a thick, saucy orange salsa that has a mouthwatering tang.
Our respectable green chile cheeseburger (perfectly medium-rare, as requested) featured fiery hot chile, asadero cheese, sautéed onions (not quite caramelized, as the menu claims), and a puffy outsize bun. Even the fries were memorable: cooked to a deep gold; crisp on the outside, fluffy and tender on the inside; and just as greasy as you want them to be (they’re not health food, after all).
For better or worse, factors other than appetite determine where we decide to eat, and a big one is ambience. Depending on the mood and who you’re eating with, you can end up in a place that serves mediocre food simply because the vibe is better or the space is more inviting. If it were located someplace sunnier and easier to spot, La Fogata Grill would be killing it. With this food, it’s halfway there.