What's not in a name

Lamento por Frida. La pobre has to be spinning in su tomba over the exploitation of su imagen. I mean, T-shirts, bolsas, note cards, rip-off pinturas … and now a restaurante — the first one I’m aware of, but there could surely be mas. (Mas of everything, in fact, since this is the 100th anniversary of her birth, and an honorific exhibit of her work in Mexico City is bound to spawn both new admirers and new kitsch.)

Frida and food have been put together before, most notably in the cookbook by Guadalupe Rivera Marin y Marie-Pierre Colle Corcuera, Las Fiestas de Frida y Diego. It actually contains some good recipes: tamales en hoja de plátano, and budin de flor de calabaza for instance. It’s pretty obvious, however, that the folks running Frida’s in San Antonio haven’t consulted it, and that’s a shame. If you’re going to knock off a name, you might as well pay proper homage. It takes more than a faux Frida with Monkeys on the wall.

Speaking of cosas fingidas, I’m concerned that diners may get the wrong idea about flor de calabaza from the crepas at Frida’s — at least the ones served me. Though there was a sprightly mix of diced squashes and onion, any actual squash flower was present in nano quantities. The crepe, for its part, was appropriately thin and tender, and the creamy cilantro sauce served atop it added a little zing. Neither made up for the falta de flor, however.

Though both flor de calabaza and huitlacoche empanadas “latinas” are on the menu, neither was available on that visit. (Wondering aloud why the crepe was doable and the empanada not, I was told the empanadas are made up ahead of time.) Of the remaining picadillo and chorizo models, the lusty chorizo con queso was the hands-down winner; the picadillo rendition was bland in comparison. And I question the odd poppyseed dressing both were drizzled with. I will continue to question it each time it appears.

I also began to get very familiar with the creamy cilantro sauce. It mantled a disappointing dish with a wonderfully bizarre name: niño envuelto, or wrapped child. Said to be chicken breast stuffed with poblanos, spinach, mushrooms, and cheese, as served it was chicken breast stuffed with very little, leaving the sauce (which may have been augmented with a little of the anticipated innards) to do the heavy lifting. In short, strikeout. A side of refried black beans, however, had some soul, while the black “borrachos” seemed uninspired. (They were much better on a second visit, as were the house chips. The salsa roja never did amount to much.)

Frida’s colorful and generally pleasant interior (much of which is devoted to a bar) has to this point had little impact on the menu. But wait: the ceviche. It’s strewn with two-color tortilla strips, fried scallion tops, diced tomato … it’s a riot of color. And it’s kind of a mess. The sliced avocado seemed fresh, but it’s the only major component that didn’t appear to have been marinating just a little too long. Oh, and there was more of that odd poppyseed dressing drizzled about.

The lomo de puerco en salsa de mango does seem to suggest some of the Latin strokes the restaurant wants to convey, but there’s a problem: the mostly missing mango sauce. There was a gloss of something sweet atop the thin, impressively grill-marked, and somewhat dry slices of pork loin, but the most important topping was pico de gallo. The topping on a chile poblano asado, the kind of dish that’s invented to dispense with egg-batter dipping and frying, was, you guessed it — the creamy cilantro sauce. But in this case, the menu description was too modest, not too boastful. True, I didn’t detect any measurable Monterey Jack, but the shredded chicken stuffing was enlivened by added onion y mas, and the total package was much better than the classic compromise I had anticipated.

My beer-based michelada should have been a classic compadre, but there was too much ice diluting what seemed more like a Bloody Mary mix than “perfectly added” Worcestershire, Tabasco, and lime juice.

Often, when a meal has been less than inspiring, the dessert saves the day, and such was the burden born by Frida’s tres leches cake, a dish that appears to have become more patriotic than apple pie in the hearts and minds of local diners. There are lots of good examples around, in other words, and Frida’s didn’t do anything to advance the state of the art; despite squirts of aerosol cream, the vanilla cake was lacking in leches. La pobre has every right to keep on spinning.

 Frida’s Mexican & Latin Cuisine
3023 Thousand Oaks
11am-10pm Mon-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri & Sat, 11am-6pm Sun
Price Range: $7-$15
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