Herbert Delgado is tired. He's just finished a meeting with his meat purveyor, and he's got a phone call on hold. The 44-year-old chef and owner of La Fonda Latino Grill still has to go over the evening's specials with his wife, Beatriz, and it's already 11:30 AM; the lunch hour approaches.
For the past 11 months the Delgados have been working nearly nonstop as they attempt to build a following for their new restaurant--and for Herbert's bold Colombian cooking. The original La Fonda, which occupied the corner of Lawrence and Clark for 16 years, was destroyed in a fire two years ago. "We didn't own the building, but we lost everything inside," says Herbert. "Fortunately we had insurance."
That first restaurant was started by Herbert and his mother, Livia, in 1984. "The recipes were all in her head," he explains. "I had to watch her closely so I could make the same dishes every day." They had moved to Chicago with Herbert's two sisters just two years earlier from Cali, Colombia, and thought opening a restaurant would be a good way to make some money. Four years into the business Herbert met Beatriz, a Cali native herself, who began frequenting La Fonda both for the company of other Colombian expat regulars and for the hearty plates of plantains, red beans, and rice. In 1990 the two were married. Their son Alexander was born that year, and soon after Beatriz began working side by side with her new husband and mother-in-law.
The Delgados realized Herbert's knowledge of food was limited by his mother's own memories, so in 1993 he enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. He graduated two years later. "That experience was so invaluable...budgets, food costs, inventory, things we never really did at La Fonda," says Herbert. Shortly thereafter he began teaching cooking classes at Saint Augustine College. For the next five years he taught at both campuses--north side and south side--while trying to hone his skills as a chef and restaurant owner. Then, in the spring of 2001, his 62-year-old mother passed away. Two months later an alley fire swept through a window in the rear of the restaurant, quickly engulfing the building.
"We were out of business for 13 months," says Beatriz. "We had no mailing list, so I kept forwarding the phone number to my cell phone or home, and would tell people, 'We're almost there, we're gonna reopen soon, be patient.'"
The Delgados scraped together their insurance money, refinanced their home and a condo they owned, and began looking for locations. Their search led them to an old Chinese church on Broadway just north of Foster, in a burgeoning section of Edgewater that now claims such pedigreed neighbors as Pasteur, Francesca's on Bryn Mawr, and the Room.
Meanwhile Herbert did a three-month stint at Ambria, the legendary temple of French haute cuisine. "Many of my new dishes are influenced by what I learned there," he says. Making the basic sauces, working the grill and the vegetable station, he was a quick study and immediately began planning to make his next restaurant more ambitious.
The Delgados loved their new area, but some surrounding business owners and neighbors were leery of granting another liquor license. Realizing he would need to serve wine, beer, and mixed drinks to compete for upscale diners, Herbert began a slow, steady campaign, starting with the alderman and then spreading out to community groups and the chamber of commerce. Once they got the license, they began gutting the new building. Eight months later, last spring, the new La Fonda opened for business.
The space is long, stretching back beyond a short flight of stairs to another, more intimate dining room. The bar up front makes a fine waiting area, where diners can choose from mojitos, margaritas, and the "Tropical Passion," an addictive drink made with fresh passion-fruit juice and aguardiente, a Colombian version of sambuca. But it's the menu that Herbert proudly shows off. In the old space he would have been able to handle only one special on the weekends; in the new space there are at least six every day. As the "Latino Grill" moniker implies, the menu reaches beyond the rice, beans, and plantains of the Delgados' home country. Argentinean empanadas, made with a soft, hand-formed pouch of white corn flour (as opposed to the crunchy, yellow corn versions from Colombia), are the size of a softball, stuffed with ground beef and raisins. Nido de camarones ("nest of shrimp") is a fried green plantain (tostone) shaped into a cup and stuffed with grilled shrimp bathed in bell peppers and curry and surrounded by a creamy poblano sauce. And Herbert's time at Ambria shows up in his lomito de res: slices of panfried pork tenderloin are napped with a mushroom sauce, saddled next to a multilayered gratin of potatoes, and served with asparagus and fried sweet plantains (maduros).
"I still have to serve some of the typical Colombian dishes, otherwise my old customers will get mad," says Herbert. And if they decide to take a pass on the daily lunch buffet of no-nonsense Colombian home cooking--chicken, flank steak, potatoes, tripe soup--they can always sink their teeth into one of Delgado's favorites: a plato montanero, which should give anyone a week's fill of protein, starch, and cholesterol. The hefty portion of fried pork rind, red beans, white rice, a fried egg, sweet plantains, and steak brings a smile to Herbert's face. When he sees one of those orders going out of the kitchen, he knows there are fellow Colombians in the house.
La Fonda Latino Grill is at 5350 N. Broadway, 773-271-3935. --Steve Dolinsky