The buzz surrounding chef Patrick Ryan, who opened his much-awaited Port Fonda restaurant in Westport, definitely stole much of the thunder from another June opening. Ivan Marquez moved his popular Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine from 148th Street in Overland Park to a larger location 27 blocks north. By suburban standards, that's practically like moving to midtown.
Marquez needed a bigger space, he says, and he was tired of hearing his Missouri customers — the ones who really do live in midtown — gripe about the long drive. It wasn't my favorite drive, either, so I say it's a damn good move. The 121st Street space, formerly occupied by the short-lived El Espolon Mexican restaurant (which served unmemorable Tex-Mex), now boasts a big main dining room in shades of terra cotta and sage; an enclosed private dining area seating 10; and a long, narrow room, dominated by the bar, with additional seating (and less noise than elsewhere in the restaurant).
Marquez is usually here, and he needs to be; this Frida's is essentially a new restaurant, subject to the issues and frustrations that accompany such a venture. He has brought four of his veteran servers with him but has hired an otherwise different front-of-the-house staff, which is still finding its footing.
The food, which has always been the calling card at Frida's (no one needs to drive south of 119th Street for a combination plate or a taco salad), remains terrific. In the kitchen is the affable Diego Rios Torre (like Marquez, a native of Guadalajara), a chef as serious about his food as this restaurant's iconic namesake, Frida Kahlo, was about her art.
The menu isn't dramatically different from the one that Marquez introduced in 2010, though Rios Torre has created a few delicious seafood dishes. A flaky filet of wine-poached basa, draped in a brassy raspberry-chipotle sauce and tissue-thin shards of fried spinach, sounds too creative for its own good, but it's light and fresh. Far simpler but just as good is the pescado al cilantro, broiled with a kicky cilantro pesto and scattered with roasted almonds.
A friend of mine who used to spend every winter in Acapulco loves Frida's but complains that its distinctive mole isn't quite rich enough. When I passed this along to Marquez, he just sighed. "In Mexico, moles can have as many variations as barbecue sauce in the Midwest," he said. "People add different ingredients and prepare it different ways. We make a Puebla-style mole. It has a little cacao in it, but it's not chocolaty."
Which is the way I like it. Chef Rios Torre's brick-red molli — from the Nahuatl word meaning "concoction" — isn't supposed to be supple. It is, instead, engagingly tangy, balancing a distant sweetness with only a hint of fire. There's also a note of the aphrodisiac cacao (used here in the form of cocoa) in the garlic-and-onion "Jamaican sauce" — one of the few cross-cultural choices here — poured over the bacon-wrapped pork medallions, each stuffed with creamy goat cheese, spinach and mushrooms.
If the doomsday reports about the Mayan calendar are accurate, then I prefer to go out with a bang in December with a huitlacoche quesadilla in one hand and a plate of timbal de sandia in the other. The latter, a seasonal dish here, is one of the best summer salads in town, a riposte to these blistering days: ribbons of lemon-marinated zucchini tossed with jewel-like squares of fresh watermelon and bits of goat cheese in an evanescent sauce of white wine and huitlacoche (black corn fungus, an ancient delicacy that conveys an earthy richness). While watermelon stays in season, Frida's is also serving slices of the sweet, pink fruit — ice-cold — with its house-marinated ceviche and crispy sweet-potato chips.)
At a glance, Frida's menu doesn't look especially vegetarian-friendly, but Marquez says if he listed every meatless option, "The menu would become way too big." Instead, he encourages patrons to ask servers for guidance. "We can do a chile relleno with cheese and mushrooms, topped with a creamy white walnut-and-pomegranate sauce, or fresh vegetables sautéed with a chapaola sauce made with onions, tomatoes and jalapeños." (And there's always the quesadilla.)
For carnivores, there are lavish surprises and reliable flavors. Achiote-roasted pork doesn't turn up on many local menus, and the version at Frida's is outstanding, marinated in tart orange juice. The flesh of the stuffed peppers — plump poblanos filled with grilled steak, fresh apples and nuts, and finished with a blanket of cheese — takes on the consistency of butter. The tacos at Frida's are not the Taco Bell variety, but who wants those when you can get this restaurant's tasty spin on street tacos, served Mexico City-style, with beef or chicken, guacamole and sautéed onions. The north-of-the-border, California version wraps fried chunks of flaky white fish in grilled corn tortillas with a jumble of fresh cabbage.
For those who insist on a conventional finale to a sophisticated meal, Frida's serves the beloved pastry batons known as churros (with coffee ice cream). I prefer the gloriously creamy — but milk-free — vanilla and caramel ice cream or the espuma de cacao, a dark-chocolate mousse with a discreet chipotle undertone (served with a ruby-colored berry sauce).
I like Marquez's new spot, but I won't mind if he continues the Frida's journey and moves the place a little farther north every couple of years. Barring a Mayan-predicted apocalypse, the restaurant would reach Prairie Village by 2016.