Too bad Frida the restaurant isn't close at hand to the DIA. When the museum's blockbuster Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibition opens March 15, a restaurant with that name could have attracted hordes of fans.
The restaurant owned by Ricardo and Salvador Gutierrez is trying mightily to lift itself above the usual cheese-smothered, Americanized version of Mexican food that is nearly ubiquitous outside of Southwest Detroit, and all too prevalent there as well. The Facebook page says, "Let's learn, enjoy and live the true Mexican gastronomy!!!" Every three months, special dishes from different regions of Mexico are swapped into the menu.
The Gutierrezes, whose sisters also work in the restaurant, have included many fine touches, such as fresh flowers and cloth napkins on the tables, live plants and cloth towels in the restroom, and handpainted copies of Kahlo's works on the walls, commissioned from a California artist named Vidal. The restaurant occupies the small space of the former lovely Annam and seems to want to repeat Annam's excellence in design.
The long menu is a mix of the dishes you can find anywhere — wet burritos ("topped with cheese, gravy, and sour cream"), botanas, tacos in deep-fried tortillas, enchiladas, chimichangas — and attempts at more ambitious dishes: shrimp Vallarta, chicken in mole poblano, steak a la tampiqueña. My companions said their versions of the first category — fajitas and chiles rellenos — were "solid." And those in the slightly off-the-beaten-track class ranged from excellent to decent try.
My favorite was Guadalajaran queso patrio, a big rectangle of grilled Chihuahua cheese topped with a tomatillo sauce. Despite my snotty remarks about cheese-smothering above, it's hard not to like fried cheese, and this one has a nutty taste that had us scarfing.
Also of note is a mole poblano soup: just a slightly thinner version of the famous mole itself. It's deep, dark brown, spicy, smoky, rich, and complex. (And don't be intimidated by moles — the word just means a complex sauce based on chiles.)
Another dish uncommon in Detroit is chiles en nogada, a traditional one from Puebla advertised as showing off the three colors of the Mexican flag. This one was more successful in its conception than in its execution: a poblano chile (green) stuffed with picadillo (beef, pineapple, mango, peaches, and spices), topped with a walnut cream sauce (white), and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds (red). The sauce was too sweet for me, and the filling, oddly, could have used more flavor. It's served with a big tasty heap of sliced bell peppers, carrots, and onions.
As you know, Mexicans like to pound their steaks thin. That's what happens to carne a la tampiqueña, which is then grilled and topped with onions and peppers. I thought the meat had an unusually robust and sumptuous flavor, and, if that weren't enough, it had a beef-filled taco, a spoonful of too-creamy guacamole, and a cheese enchilada on the side. A spicier version would be carne asada, which here is topped with grilled onions and jalapeños.
Frida serves a limey ceviche of tilapia and shrimp with cilantro, not the very best, of course, which would require a location by the sea, but quite acceptable for Michigan. In fact, Frida offers eight fish or shrimp dishes. On the side come tortillas shaped into crisp little cups and filled with beans. I asked for salmon Veracruzano — though any salmon served in Veracruz would have to be imported. It had a good limey sauce but the salmon was not the tenderest. Shrimp Vallarta is served in the same sauce; fish tacos come with a mango sauce. My Mexican-food-aficionado friend found his steamed tilapia picante too picante, an oddity for his iron taste buds.
Chiles rellenos were notable for their very thick cheese stuffing and non-thick breading, both pluses, but not for their ordinary tomato sauce. Fajitas were served thoughtfully deconstructed, with a half-dozen little pots of guac, sour cream, pico de gallo, cheese, rice, and beans. The fajita trio with steak, chicken, and shrimp is surely the way to go here.
For dessert there's a solid flan, with little mounds of whipped topping, rice pudding, some American favorites (cheesecake, carrot cake), or sopapillas, which sound lovely, stuffed with caramelized bananas.
The tequila selection is large, an entire page on the menu. A liter of margaritas is $25.99, and your margarita can be customized by adding Curaçao, vodka, Grand Marnier, triple sec, and more.
All meats are halal.
As my friend who cooks Mexican every day opined about Frida, "It's a good idea at least." The Gutierrez family is to be thanked for opening the culinary doors to Mexico a bit wider — it's too bad the demands of commerce keep chimichangas on the menu too.