Jan 16, 2012

Frida's: More Than Just Contemporary Mexican

Restaurant: Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine
Location: 14861 Metcalf, OP KS
Food: Upscale Mexican
Service: Traditional Waitstaff
Atmosphere: Suburban Strip Mall Mexican
Price: Apps $7-$9, Entrees $15-$19
Rating: 3 Napkins

A couple years ago, here in Kansas City there were just two types of Mexican restaurants: bustling family-friendly Americanized places specializing in burrito platters and those salads that come in a big fried tortilla bowl, and smaller holes in the wall that had a higher degree of Mexican authenticity but mostly unremarkable atmosphere. The former are typically staples of the busy suburban/white areas of town, and the latter dotted Southwest Boulevard and KCK near actual Mexican neighborhoods. There's tasty food to be found in both locations but they all left me wondering whether this really was all we should expect from Mexican cuisine.

There was also the freakish Mi Cocina on the plaza, a clubby over-priced hot spot with a curious basement drunk partiers would think of late on a Friday night… perhaps the closest thing to an upscale Mexican place in town, but with a reputation for bad food and worse service that led to a collective public understanding that it was on its way out. And soon enough it did croak.

All the while, my affinity for good Mexican food has grown. What started as a weekly pilgrimage to the rug rats’ heaven that is The Salty Iguana in Prairie Village gave way to a new found love for asada and adovada street tacos at Cancun Fiesta Fresh and Tacos el Pastor and Enchiladas de Mole at El Patron. I lost my taste for the concept of ground beef in a basketball-sized flour tortilla covered with cheddar and iceberg and migrated to fresh corn tortillas, slow cooked pork and beef, cilantro and raw onion. And as my tastes have mutated, I believe the Mexican restaurant scene in Kansas City has been evolving.

I surmise this with three relatively new Mexican restaurants in mind: Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine, Zocalo and Mestizo, all of which tout a more sophisticated and proud Mexican dining experience. And of the three new joints, I've started by trying the elder of the group, Frida's.

Frida's, indeed, offers just what I think we've needed in Mexican cuisine for so long: good, carefully prepared and authentic Mexican food in a more sophisticated, cleaned-up atmosphere. Don't get me wrong, the dirty little taquerias have their place and their food is great for what it is, but we've needed a Mexican restaurant that felt nice inside and Frida's provides just that.

My opinion of the atmosphere at Frida's isn't entirely positive, though. After the solid 30 minute drive southward to their 149th & Metcalf location, I found Frida's to be typical of an upscale south KC-suburban restaurant, located in a nondescript strip mall, with mostly forgettable but perfectly suitable decor, enhanced with nice Frida Kahlo-themed touches. It's not at all unpleasant but neither is it noteworthy. Suburban-classy or suburban business casual is how I'd term it.

But for however normal the decor may be, the food is equally as much a surprise if you're not in the know about what they serve there. The food at Frida's is special, flat-out. Heck, just go to the website and check out the hero shots of some of their specialties on the home page and instantly you'll see what I mean. The dishes are beautifully plated on artful white dishes... a far cry from the cafeteria-style black heatproof plastic and aluminum trays they plunk down in front of you at, say, Ponak's. Then peruse the menu and you'll start picking up on ingredients you didn't even know were part of authentic Mexican cuisine. Pomegranate seeds, slivered almonds, raisins, walnut cream sauce... sound like your usual Friday night chiles relleno in Johnson County? Not quite. But that's basically what I ordered and all those ingredients were included.

The dish was called Chile en Nogada and it darn-near blew my mind. And not just because it was spicy--which it was. It's basically two stuffed poblanos in a cream sauce but the refinement and preparation of this dish were wonderful. First, I noticed that the waxy, touch skin on the chiles had been removed, which made them infinitely more enjoyable and easy to eat. Great touch. Stuffed inside each (there were two) was a sweet mixture of small strips of grilled beef, lots of slivered almonds and plump, juicy raisins. The green chiles came smothered in--not stringy, cheap yellow cheese--but a wonderfully decadent walnut cream sauce and bright red pomegranate seeds.

The flavors of the dish play off each other in amazing ways. There's the initial sweetness of the raisins and cream sauce, balanced nicely with the core flavor of beef and the meaty flesh of the poblanos, offset with a pop of acid from the pomegranates, all of which is layered with an undertone of chile pepper spice. Great layers of flavor! Poblanos can be very mild or fairly spicy depending on the individual peppers and these two babies were high on the Scoville scale. Hot enough, in fact, that I had a full-on stomach ache after finishing just one, but I cared not. I was in heaven.

Separating the Mexican flag-colored chiles was a nice big lump of green rice that, too, was far better than average but was mostly lost on my dazzled palette by the time I got to it.

Elizabeth opted for the chicken. Number 24, actually, called Pollo en Hoja Santa. Her rectangular platter came with two thinly pounded, grilled pieces of chicken which were unimaginably moist thanks, I'd say, to the technique of being wrapped in the hoja santa leaf when initially cooked (I'm dying to go back into the kitchen and see how this dish all comes together - I've never had chicken like this before). The chicken was folded around generous hunks of creamy goat cheese and wonderfully flavorful sauteed squash blossoms. The whole thing is sauced lightly with a tomatillo almond concoction that lends some bright acidity to the rich, cheesy chicken.

We loved it. We loved both entrees. And with the clearly discernible buzz from our giant margaritas to compliment the fantastic Mexican food, we were blissful.

So the tough question we debated in the car on the way home was: would we be back? Truth be told, we don't venture south of 95th much when there's as much good stuff in midtown/plaza/brookside/westport/downtown, so much closer to home. Frida's is half way to Tulsa, it's a little pricey (by Mexican restaurant standards) and the atmosphere isn't terribly remarkable. The real answer is that only time will tell. But I have the feeling I'll be seeking excuses to make a return voyage and see what other delights are in store on the menu. Everyone in KC who enjoys Mexican food owes him/herself at least one dinner out at Frida's.

And look for comparison posts in the future when I've had the chance to check out Mestizo and Zocalo.

Rating: 3 Napkins
Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Mary said...

Great photos and write-up. The food sounds really special for mid-America.

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