May 31-June 6, 2006

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First Bite

La Fondita

By Lise Shelton

I love Mexican food. Simple, straightforward Mexican food with clear, layered flavors and a bit of heat. That means no glop and no goop. Don't give me an overstuffed burrito or some sauce-smothered unidentifiable mélange of cheese-oozing ingredients masquerading as an enchilada. Nope. Give me the kind of Mexican food La Fondita serves.

Sitting awkwardly at the corner of Sebastopol Road, La Fondita doesn't exactly shout itself out. But its mobile unit, the bright aqua Delicias Elenitas taco truck across the street, caused me to stop. And despite the uncompelling exterior, the restaurant definitely grabbed my olfactory attention. Oh yes, I smelled pork fat rendering. I smelled grilled meat. I smelled a good meal about to happen. That positive vibe is magnified by the happy décor inside the restaurant with multihued serape fabric draping the windows; bright, acrylic paintings of Mexican singers dominating the walls; and placemats with Mexican history or geography lessons lying beneath the glass tabletops.

With the menu comes the requisite basket of tortilla chips. While the chips were nothing special (and the salsa respectable but not exceptional), I found myself (as always) practically emptying the basket. What makes them so addictive is the small dish of creamy frijoles refritos topped with a few crumbles of tangy queso anejo. The secret ingredient is reportedly chorizo (though I suspect lard is what makes it so creamy). After I stopped scooping up the frijoles long enough to pick up the menu, I turned right to the page with the antojitos. Antojitos are "snacks," but with a creamy horchata, it's a meal.

When I want something hearty, I go for the pambazo ($6.50), a Mexican version of a meatball sub. Thick, soft bread envelops the spicy chorizo, and the fried potatoes and onions more than ably sop up the flavorful juices and oils. Another favorite is the beef tinga ($4.75), which I usually take on a tostada, though it is also offered in a quesadilla. Shredded beef and onions that have been stewed in a spicy, sweet, smoky sauce are garnished with a bit of cream, shredded iceberg lettuce and crumbled queso anejo. It's a good thing those cooling toppings are there, because the tinga possesses the kind of chile heat that sneaks up on you; one moment you're fine, the next your nose is dripping like a broken faucet.

On the lighter side, there's the huarache ($6.50), an oval of thick fried masa shaped like a sandal and topped with a choice of nicely charred meat, which for me is the grilled chicken. Most often, I opt for the gordita ($3.95), carnitas sandwiched between two fluffy corn griddle cakes, at once crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. (A note on the guacamole that accompanies many of the dishes: It's super fresh with an excellent ratio of smooth avocado mash to chunks of avocado and tomatoes. Me encanta.)

While I have tried La Fondita's pozole--a huge portion of hominy, chiles and pork stew full of porky flavor--and I want to try the chicharron con nopales, or any one of the many seafood dishes, the antojitos keep calling me back. And, honestly, why mess with a good thing?

La Fondita, 816 Sebastopol Road at West Avenue, Santa Rosa. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 707.526.0881.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.