Incendiary Incentives 

Playing With Fire At The Eastside's La Fonda.

ON THE RECOMMENDATION of several enthusiastic diners, I recently wandered through the doors of La Fonda, a small, unassuming Mexican eatery on East Speedway between Alvernon Way and Columbus Boulevard. Although I live in the area, I've routinely driven past this humble café, which has been open for about five months. In that short time La Fonda has already cultivated a small but devout clientele enamored of its distinctively different Mexican cuisine.

La Fonda heavily emphasizes carne, or meat, which appears in almost every dish. Beef in particular plays a leading role, most often in the form of grilled sirloin served whole, cubed, stripped, shredded and simmered in a colorful array of sauces and ingredients. Chicken is another La Fonda favorite, and is a foundation in everything from soup to móles. Fans of carnitas will delight in El Plato Mexicano, a platter heaped with seasoned, fried pork served with guacamole and choice of flour or corn tortillas. Although the menu limits the vegetarian diet to chiles rellenos and green corn tamales, it sates the carnivorous appetite in a variety of glorious ways.

La Fonda's owners hail from the area around Mexico City, where they once operated a restaurant. While their background likely accounts for the menu's regional variations, it's still possible to find burros, chimichangas, tacos and caldo de queso listed among the offerings. However, for a true La Fonda experience diners should sample the less familiar dishes, which show off the eatery's culinary prowess to best effect.

A waitress welcomes diners with a basket of crisp corn tortilla chips, a selection of three salsas, and warm, pureed beans. Besides meat, La Fonda's other byword is "hot." The food sizzles with red chile and jalapeño heat with every bite, starting with the trio of salsas. One is a typical salsa fresca with bits of chopped jalapeño, another is a fiery green tomatillo puree, and the third is a searing orange-red brew infused with chile de árbol and onions. None is for the faint of palate, who should avail themselves of the innocuous but delicious bean dip instead.

Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., La Fonda offers the same menu for midday and evening meals. For lunch we sampled the chiles rellenos ($6.50), filled with cheese rather than the recommended shredded beef, and a steaming bowl of tortilla soup ($3.20).

The rellenos plate consists of one large, fresh green chile stuffed with white cheese, lightly battered and fried, and served with a savory, Italian-influenced tomato sauce. Incorporating hints of oregano and garlic, the sauce complements the dish remarkably well. Accompanying the entree are refried or charro beans (whole beans cooked with bits of bacon, chorizo, cilantro and onion), Spanish rice and warm tortillas. The rice is particularly noteworthy, colored brick-red from tomatoes and chile powder and dappled with peas and bits of carrot, onion and sweet corn.

The tortilla soup was another success. Pasilla chiles, onions and garlic season a rich chicken broth ladled over crispy strips of corn tortilla, shredded white cheese and diced avocado. Sour cream and guacamole are served on the side. Even on a warm day, the soup makes a satisfying repast.

Drinks at La Fonda ($1.25-$1.50) deserve particular mention: horchata (sweetened rice water), agua de tamarindo (tamarind juice), lemonade and naranjada (orangeade) all include free refills, and each is delicious and refreshing.

Next visit we committed ourselves to La Fonda's signature meat dishes.

The enchiladas ($6.50) -- filled with shredded chicken or beef and topped with cheese and choice of green, red or móle sauce -- are exquisite. I opted for chicken with green salsa, on the recollection that the green wasn't quite as incendiary as red. Nonetheless, the dish is rather spicy, either due to an extra dash of jalapeños in the salsa or the fusion of spices flavoring the enchiladas. The heat by no means spoiled my enjoyment of the dish, which combined tender, savory chicken, mellow, creamy cheese, and the flavorful, fiery salsa.

The Especial La Fonda ($8.95) features two thin, tender strips of grilled sirloin with a dazzling array of side dishes, including a soft flour tortilla covered in móle sauce; and a crisp tortilla cup filled with chorizo, refried beans, rice and guacamole. My appreciation for the art of La Fonda's cooking grew as I worked my way around the plate. All of the elements were scrumptious, but the móle tortilla and chorizo shell were particularly marvelous.

La Fonda's outstanding móle is the classic, umber roux of red chile and dark chocolate. (On my next visit, the chicken mole will top my list). The tortilla shell filled with chorizo -- coarsely ground pork sausage seasoned with garlic and chile powder -- was a simple, pleasant contrast to the rest of the meal. It made an impressive symphony of tastes.

Rounding out our meal were soft tacos ($1.50 each) filled with a choice of carne asada (grilled sirloin strips) or carne con chile colorado (shredded beef simmered in red chile). La Fonda serves the small, savory tacos with shredded lettuce, grated cheddar cheese and chopped tomato. The only disappointment was the chile colorado's surprising mildness; it lacks the smoke and flame so evident in La Fonda's other dishes. The situation was easily remedied with a spoonful of the zesty chile de árbol salsa.

Among the dessert offerings of puddings, bunuelos and flan, we sampled the latter two. The bunuelos ($2.90), two fried flour tortillas sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, were served in a dark syrup. The traditional flan custard ($2.90) is prepared coarse and dense at La Fonda, and thoroughly infused with the intense flavor of cajeta (caramelized sugar and milk). So scrumptious was this sweet that I grappled with ordering a second serving.

La Fonda, a name that the menu defines as "a home that gives hospitality and food to weary travelers," is a true find: a restaurant that provides great food at reasonable prices in a clean and friendly atmosphere. Don't make the mistake of passing it by.

La Fonda. 4122 E. Speedway Blvd. 881-2485. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. No alcohol. V, MC, AMEX. Menu items: $1.25-$8.95.

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