Restaurant Reviews

Frida Bistro, Not Frida’s Bistro

I tried to call 411 to get the number for the new restaurant Frida Bistro the other day so I could make a reservation. I got a voice with a heavy accent on the phone — directory assistance ain’t what it used to be! As it turns out, the listing was under Frida Bistro, not Frida’s. Anywho, my experience at the restaurant was much better than the one I had with 411. In fact, my experience at the restaurant was unique and wonderful!

From the moment Frida opened her doors, my sister, Lottie Ann Ellsworth, has been asking, “When are you taking me to Frida Bistro?” Here’s a dish by dish picture of the evening I finally took her.

Just to give you some background first: Frida is an extension of the very large and profitable Rico’s Foods. It’s located in the front of Rico’s warehouse at 545 West 700 S. in the middle on Salt Lake’s old industrial area which is just now rising from last century’s ashes. Frida is on a tree-lined street and looks quite rustic.

We were met by the very smart and welcoming Stephanie Bailey-Hatfield who is the front-end manager of Frida. Stephanie, who has worked in many Salt Lake City restaurants, has completely immersed herself in Mexican culture and regional lore in order to add strenuous authenticity to her work — and she has succeeded. Frida says “MEXICO” the minute you walk up: It has all the kitsch of the Tijuana border crossing, but with style. From the hardwood floors, exposed brick walls and beautiful glass light fixtures, to the rustic furniture and art, Frida is inviting, colorful and fun.

Our waiter was Eric Adams, who was a bit shy but a good waiter nevertheless. He talked us into trying two of the restaurant’s fabled mojitos. I chose the Prickly Pear and Lottie chose the Passion fruit. The mojitos were tall and refreshing and full of fresh mint, agave nectar, ice and other flavorings — quite chi chi in my opinion, but a very welcome change from typical margaritas. My Prickly Pear was flavored with a syrup made from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus and had a flavor reminiscent of both pomegranate and cassis. Its color was amethyst, and although it was quite sweet I loved it. The fresh mint added an herbal pungency that really enhanced the agave.

The first food item brought to our table was an amuse-bouche they called a “gordita,” which actually means “little fat one” in Spanish. These were tiny sandwiches made of red spicy corn tortillas cut into small disks and filled with Requeson cheese. The sandwiches were sitting on a bed of toasted and sweetened seeds, some of which I recognized as sunflower and pumpkin. Lottie and I loved it. So many times you get this tiny little morsel at the beginning in trendy restaurants, but it doesn’t mean anything — and although this dish was small, it meant a lot.

Next we were brought a plate of esquite. This was served in a cool margarita glass surrounded by homemade blue corn chips. The esquite itself was a nothing-but-corn salsa which has been cut off the cob, slightly roasted and marinated in citrus. It was topped with a creamy aioli, lightly flavored with chipotle and cheese. The creaminess seeped into the salsa and when eaten with the chips it was really delicious. My sister and I thought it needed a little color for salsa but, as I already knew, this was a very regional, at home dish served in poor homes. This made it very different and a nice change from the usual “chips and salsa” served at Mexican restaurants. On the side of this dish we had small quesadilla triangles filled with black beans and cheese stuffed into soft, blue corn tortillas. These came with one of those authentic hot chili salsas you only see in Mexico. The combination of these two items was enough to totally sell us on Frida, an island of old, rural Mexico right here in the of late chilly Utah mountains.

Next, we were treated to a beautiful arugula salad with fresh pineapple slices and mango. The dressing was made from the mango and citrus juices. We really liked this refreshing and different salad. We then shared two more entrées; first, a trimmed rib-eye steak served in a pool of red chili sauce that didn’t come out of a can as so many cooks would use. Instead it was made with real achiote-like chilies and blended with Jamaica which is the infused juice of the hibiscus flower. It also came with a twice-baked potato. My sister and I didn’t like this part. The potato tasted old and over-cooked to me, like it had been sitting in a warmer too long. It was my only truly unhappy moment during the dinner.

After that we got carnitas that were crisp, yet tender and lightly seasoned. They came with warm corn tortillas, a delicious salsa and homemade guacamole, and we ordered a side of tres verdes rice to go along. Tres verdes means “three greens,” and I believe the rice was seasoned with spinach, jalapeno and cilantro. I’m going to try this recipe myself within a week or two.

Although we had  mojitos at Frida, I also brought along a white Bordeaux, Ducasse Graves ’06. It is a floral Semillon-based wine that tastes a bit smoky and minerally. I thought it went great with all our food. We also had a glass of a wine that Stephanie special orders for Frida: a Mexican, Montefiori Vinyard Red made from Cabernet and Sangiovese and full of raspberry essence. We loved it.

Dessert came in the form of a beautifully-plated chocolate/cinnamon cookie flanked by home-made dulce de leche ice cream. On the plate were three dots of hot fudge flavored with Mexican chili and other baking spices. We needed more of the fudge!

I lived in San Diego for many years and have frequently traveled to Mexico. I had many Hispanic friends who taught me how to cook several dishes. At this time, I also watched a PBS program featuring chef Rick Bayless. Rick is the foremost chef, in my opinion, who studies and takes you to out of the way places in Mexico and Central America. Frida is the first time I’ve ever seen a restaurant follow in his footsteps. Usually, restaurants make American Mexican food; at Frida, you get the real thing.

If you’ve visited Mexico, watched one of Bayless’ shows, or if you’re just really interested in truly innovative, yet authentically-based foods, you have to go to Frida. Other than the potato I didn’t enjoy, I would have liked to have seen at least one green sauce made of tomatillo — which Frida may indeed have on the menu and I just didn’t notice. I felt there were too many red chili sauces that were too similar and perhaps, too much use of the requeson cheese. Nevertheless, Frida tops my list of Mexican restaurants in Salt Lake and I highly, highly recommend it with a rating of 95 points.

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