Streaked a single shade of peach, Cafe Frida parrots a too familiar design idea—a village with tiled roofs, arched walkways, and multilevel seating areas, one on a cramped rooftop. Though the effect is marred by an air conditioner descending from the ceiling like an alien spaceship, the fumbling but friendly service is just what you’d expect from a small town. But if you order judiciously, this new café serves up some great Mexican fare.
Frida repeats the popular shtick of preparing guacamole ($8) at your table in a molcajete, the traditional lava-stone mortar. Be assertive as you watch, demanding extra jalapeños, garlic powder, and, especially, lime juice, or the result is likely to be hopelessly bland. Less dependent on your input is queso fundido ($5.50), a pool of melted Monterey Jack miring caramelized onions and a choice of chile strips, crumbled sausage, or sautéed mushrooms. Pick the fungus. Also admirable is whole baby squid stuffed with minced shrimp and grilled, and miniature empanadas ($5.50) with a savory scallop filling napped with green tomatillo sauce. But the invariably fresh salsa cruda and basket of chips, served gratis, might be starter enough.
Like the handful of other upscale Mexicans in town, this café raids the cookbooks for regional recipes. From the seafood capital of Mexico comes pescado a la veracruzana ($16.50), a hefty sea bass fillet with a subtle tomato sauce highlighting cilantro and garlic, the garnish of capers and pimento-stuffed olives betraying its Iberian origins. The sauce enhances the delicate flavor of the fish rather than smothering it, and disks of sweet green plantain are a righteous accompaniment. The mole poblano is also right on the money, the inky sauce lighter and less complex than usual. There’s enough to moisten the bird, the oiled rice, and as many warm corn tortillas as you can snatch from the basket—it won’t be replenished unless you scour the village for your waiter. Another stunner from Veracruz is chilpachole ($6), a chile-laced soup usually made with crab, but here interpreted with shrimp, scallop, squid, and on some occasions a chunk of fish, making a mini bouillabaisse. The flavor is even more wonderful if you deploy all the cilantro, chopped purple onion, and lime wedges provided.
Frida’s does sometimes sell the Upper West Side short by confusing fancy with bland. The pollo guadalajara ($13), a skinless deboned breast wrapped around a dull-tasting mushroom filling, sprawls in a pool of one-dimensional tomatillo sauce—the only flavor on the plate. The portion of the menu listing chef’s inventions (‘‘Los Encantados’’) offers huachinango borracho, red snapper in a terrific tequila-and-chipotle sauce. At a recent meal, diners reached across the table to dip a tortilla in the piquant gravy, while the dry fillet, cooked long before the dish was assembled, remained untouched. Similarly, the intriguing-sounding appetizer torta de elote ($6), described as corn pudding, was a once moist soufflé that had shrunk to the consistency of corn bread.
But all will be forgiven when you taste the pièce de résistance, mixiote ($16). Frida’s replaces the usual chicken with a lamb shank, then coats it with chiles and avocado leaves, swaddles it in parchment, and steams it in beer. The leathery leaves are cousins of bay laurel, and yield a blunted licorice flavor. Oddly, the shank is unaccompanied, forcing you to side-order rice, or swipe a neighbor’s while she’s out searching for the waiter. But when you pull back the paper, all reservations will vanish as the pungent odor wafts upward.