By Elise Krentzel
Photography of Miguel Ravago by Matt Lankes
Chef Miguel Ravago, founder of Fonda San Miguel—what some call the first authentic Mexican restaurant in Austin—grew up in his loving Mexican grandparents’ house in the dusty desert city of 1950s Phoenix, Arizona. The household also included Ravago’s sister and mother, but it was his grandmother who was the undisputed queen of the roost—leaving him with a solid, lifelong impression of what bliss is supposed to be: good home cooking, compelling conversation and loads of happy people enjoying delicious food.
Helping out in his grandmother’s kitchen while his mother was working gave young Ravago the opportunity to watch and learn her cooking skills. “It was mostly Mexican cooking, and I really wanted to learn,” he says. “My grandmother knew that I did, so she had me help her—besides, I was company for her during the day. Grandmother was very young at heart, and she had so much to talk about. And being a lady from Mexico living in the U.S., her way of still being in Mexico was by her cooking. She wanted all of us to know about her foods.”
As is the case in many homes, but especially in Ravago’s, serving food, breaking bread together and eating as a family were the central themes. “My cousins who were younger than I would spend the summers with us at Grandmother’s,” he says. “So I am talking about eight or nine extra mouths for her to cook for. It was like a big dinner party every day of the summer, and…you know that kids do not like to eat the same thing every day and Grandmother was so great at keeping us all happy.”
Today, Ravago’s special relationship with his grandmother continues to radiate from his hands into his cuisine. “One of the things that she always said to do was to taste what I was cooking, which is something that I say to all my students. And I would love to tell the same to many chefs around today, because I am sure that they would not let things go out of their kitchens in the way they sometimes do. I was lucky to have my grandmother come to Texas to visit our restaurant in her later years. I came out to the dining room to ask her how she enjoyed her dinner and she said, ‘Miguel, I can tell you’re tasting your food, and I remember having this dish in Mexico when I was young.’ To me, that was her way of saying that we were doing a great job and that I was enjoying what I was doing.”
Ravago says that there is nothing more heartwarming, delicious and easy to make than his grandmother’s Sopa Seca de Fideo con Pollo, or vermicelli with chicken and chipotle (smoke-dried jalapeño). He suggests that you make a big batch and invite over as many friends and family members as your table will hold.
SOPA SECA DE FIDEO CON POLLO
(Vermicelli with Chicken and Chipotle)
Serves 4 and can be doubled
For the soup:
3 T. olive oil
1 medium white onion, chopped finely
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 oz. fideos (vermicelli)
4 ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped (or 1 c. canned tomato
pieces with juices)
1 canned chipotle pepper in adobo, chopped
2 c. chicken stock or canned chicken broth
1 chicken breast, panfried or grilled, sliced thinly across the
grain and then cut into bite-size pieces
Sea salt, to taste, if needed
For the garnish:
1 small container crème fraîche (better and fluffier than
¼ c. chopped cilantro
1 avocado, cut into small chunks
8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled by hand
1 ripe tomato, chopped
In a medium-size casserole dish, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened. Add the noodles (if using the coil fideo, break the noodles a couple of times with your hands before adding). Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the pasta is coated with oil and begins to brown evenly without burning. Stir in the tomatoes and chipotle. Let the tomatoes cook a few minutes before adding the broth and chicken. Season with salt. Bring to a boil, stir once then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the noodles are finished—about 10 minutes.
Transfer everything to a serving dish and add the garnishes in the order listed.
This pasta can also be made without chicken, and it’s great when served with a green salad and a good glass of sauvignon blanc or an oaky Spanish red wine.