Welcome to On Location, where we talk to the coolest cooks and makers around the country about what's inspiring them right now.
Executive chef Lauro Romero, executive pastry chef Olivia Bartruff, and entrepreneur Angel Medina opened their first concept, República, in November of 2020. By day, the restaurant was a traditional, homestyle Mexican restaurant, serving quesadillas and guisados; by night, they served a five-course tasting menu. After República was named Portland Monthly’s 2021 Restaurant of the Year, the team spun their daytime concept into its own space, La Fondita, a naming nod to the neighborhood restaurants Medina and Romero grew up with in Mexico.
From their back-of-house practices to the dishes they serve, the República/La Fondita team has an extraordinary commitment to intentionality and accuracy in everything that they do. Although the new restaurant is casual, it remains unapologetically Mexican. You’ll never find burritos or chips and guac on the menu; instead, you’re given the option to choose from half a dozen egg dishes or incredible stewy guisados. A counter seat affords you a glimpse into Romero and Medina’s childhoods in Mexico and a front-row seat to La Fondita’s tortilla-making process (the staff nixtamalizes and mills all of its corn by hand).
Over plates of food, I spoke with co-founder Angel Medina about what is (and isn’t) traditional Mexican food, where República and La Fondita fit in that narrative, and the Mexican women who inspire him.
What does it mean to you to serve traditional Mexican food?
It’s why we got into this business, to tell stories from the ground up. Every night we take these things—a memelita, a tlacoyo—and we prepare it the way that [the Olmec women] would, and then we intentionally bastardize it. We add cheese, we add olive oil, and part of that is just to expand on the narrative. Most people think that what we do is Mexican cuisine, but there really isn't anything that's originally Mexican about it. The food is still the food that belonged to the natives: Toltecs, Olmecs, Mexica. But today, we have the luxury of using components—mostly stolen—from places like Africa, all over Asia, all over India. You know, that to me is Mexican cuisine. Mexican cuisine is... at best, it's a bastardization, it's culturally appropriated food, components stolen from everywhere else. Everything else before, it belonged to the natives.
Colonization is the reason for the library that we have to make all these dishes. One of the things that I found very fascinating, in my research, was Enrique Olvera’s mole madre recipe: 40% of it is Asian components that would have never existed here. You cannot call that mole madre, because not all those things belong to you. The sauces and the moles were being made by the natives with very limited components. So for us to understand this food, you have to understand the history. We give thanks every day, when we put out these dishes, to those people—who had their language, their seeds, their people, their culture, stolen from them and brought to this continent. This is why we do this food, right? We say thank you to them, and that's the biggest piece, the history part. And that's the first lesson that you get, the minute you sit down and we bring you this food.
What was the process like of bringing the fondita concept to Portland, and what were you hoping to achieve?
I grew up in Mexico, so I remember going to these fonditas: They're the cornerstone of any neighborhood. You go, and you will run into your neighbors. You have so much trust in these people, because everybody knows how to make this food. Everybody knows how to make mole, but not everybody wants to cook that night. So that's the thing that we were trying to recreate, the flavor that was gonna bring you back, if you've been to Mexico. You see the tortillas being made by hand in front of you, you get to sit at the bar and catch all the things that are happening, the way that most fonditas would operate. Or if you went to a mercado in Mexico City—walk into any stall, and you see that same sort of activity. We’re giving you the visual of what this looks like as you sit at the bar, with plates just coming out and somebody's offering you more tortillas. It's kind of wonderful.
Here, we're selling an entirely new audience on one side and making them feel comfortable with how it works. And on the other hand, we're trying to remind people, especially second gen-ers that have only heard these stories, this is what your parents grew up on. This is what they experienced. So you have this beautiful balance every afternoon, of people who are feeling nostalgic, and people that are confused by what a guisado is. That's the biggest difference between doing it in Mexico and doing it here, but at the end of the day, that part of it has been fun. It's been learning experience after learning experience.
You guys chose not to open on Cinco de Mayo, and there are a lot of dishes that are intentionally not on your menus, which I really admire. Can you tell me a little bit about that?Well, we thought it was gonna take a little longer for people to buy into this idea that we were going to ditch margaritas and burritos—and chips and guac, or any of that stuff. But everything had to follow the intentionality that we originally drew up, so going outside of that was never an option. None of that is something that we will ever serve. And part of that is because nothing that we do is meant to accommodate a culture outside of us. We’re a very exclusive establishment, meaning that we make this food like we’re making it for our relatives. And if you are somebody outside of this culture, we can appreciate that, and this place is still for you. But there’s no changing the name of things to make people more comfortable, none of that. If we feed you tongue, you better eat tongue. If we feed you ants and ant larva, you better eat the ants and ant larva. Otherwise, you’re paying good money for a dish that is going to waste!
Your nixtamalization program is widely acclaimed in the Portland area. How did that get started?
We bought all this corn, and we started doing it by hand ourselves: putting it through the nixtamalization process, then watching it eventually break down so that we can mill it. It’s a lot of work to mill it by hand; it's very stupid to think that you're gonna open a restaurant and mill it by hand, and it was not quite coming out like we were expecting.
So there was this woman who worked at a different restaurant that had just gone under, and I said, ‘Can you come in? We’d love for you to just teach us.’ We got her in, this tiny woman: Doña Chapis. And she gets the corn, the masa, and she looks at it, then looks at me. I'm like, ‘What’s wrong?’ She's like, ‘Do you have chickens, live chickens?’ We said, ‘No?’ And she says, ‘Well, you should give this to the chickens; this is garbage.’ And that's how the program started. She taught us so much about fundamentals—the handling of it, shaping, the temperature of it. We learned so much from her. And the rest, we just kept studying, especially Lauro. He took every course that he could find online. He read every book. And all of a sudden, it's like—okay, we have our own masa program.
There’s 300 years of history behind ancestral corn. And being able to take that, being able to shape it, and understanding that every one of those varietals breaks down at a certain temperature, at a certain time. When you take it and turn it into what has made us so popular here—the quesadilla, which has a three-color tortilla—it's like taking cotton and denim and silk and turning it into a quilt that is all the same texture. Those are things that we didn't understand at the beginning, because we were just following a recipe. But that's the beauty of everything that we've done here with the program: None of it is possible without the people around us who educate us. That's what made the program what it is now.
What was it like to travel Mexico and learn the origins of some of the dishes on your menu? Does it feel like you’re reconnecting with something?
I think that the connection happens for me. I was fortunate enough to be in Oaxaca recently. I went to a place called Alfonsina, from [Jorge León], one of the young chefs trained by Enrique Olvera, who did the moles. It’s actually his mother's place—he went back to a small town in Oaxaca, and cooks out of their house, and it's fantastic. It got named one of the best 150 restaurants in the world. We all cried a little bit, because we sat with her, and she was patient enough to teach us. My memories of my grandmother are very much similar memories, watching her cook and talk about food. With this woman, there’s no blender there, no mills, no food processor, none of that. She's just taking the things and explaining to you why she does each one of them at a different stage: why you start toasting the almonds first, and you let them sit before you start toasting chiles. Everything roasts at a different level.
Those are the little lessons that you're not gonna get from a recipe book. The connection is there for anybody who has been around their parents, or been around their grandmother, not just me. You feel it; you just stand around, and watch this woman cook, and feel that emotion. There's something magical about it. And if you go to Oaxaca, which I hope you do, go to Alfonsina. Truly one of the most humbling places that I’ve been to.
- Favorite snack? PAYDAY candy bars.
- Taco or quesadilla? It’s always going to be taco.
- Favorite dessert? Beet atole and sourdough ice cream (currently on the menu at República).
- Favorite piece of food media: The Mérida episodes of Rick Bayless’ Mexico: One Plate at a Time.
- Kitchen tool you can’t live without: Deli containers and blue tape.
- Favorite spice: Achiote, sesame, chocolate.