Frida's, which has been open for two months on Madison in the old Zinnie's East location, takes the artist Frida Kahlo as its namesake, which is not an uncommon phenomenon among Mexican restaurants in the U.S. There are places in Kansas, Colorado, Texas and Vermont named after the early 20th century painter and political activist. And because Kahlo's work embraced indigenous Mexican influences, it makes sense to invoke her spirit.
The exterior and interior of the Memphis Frida's — which is owned by Lauriano Gonzales, who managed the Happy Mexican — have been renovated in adobe-like colors. The patio has a red tile roof, floors are clay tile, and inside walls have an earthy stucco finish. The rustic wood-frame settees that provide seating at the booths in the dining room create a Mexican ranch-style atmosphere. With interior dining rooms on two floors and outdoor dining on the patio and the balcony that overlooks Madison, the ambiance is busy and festive.
As you'd expect, chips and salsa arrive almost immediately after you are seated. Salsa should be an easy test for a Mexican restaurant to pass; it sets expectations for the rest of the meal. One night recently, it seemed the Frida's kitchen hadn't bothered to enhance canned tomato sauce with cilantro or onions, though a couple of days later, more care had been taken to flavor the salsa, and the tomatoes were chunkier.
A "Margarita Special Combo" that we ordered from the appetizers was a mound of rice studded with shrimp and bits of chicken and steak. It might have made a meal for two, and was enough to divide among four to six people as an appetizer. Unfortunately, it arrived on a platter at the same time as our main dishes, which also had rice.
The Tamales Mexicanos are described as "stuffed with pork," but the ones we received were mostly masa flour with a narrow wedge of seasoned meat in the center. The menu also promised refried black beans with the tamales, but the standard pinto beans, puréed rather than mashed, arrived instead.
I ordered the Chile Colorado listed under "especialidades de la casa," but I received the Tacos de Carnitas, corn tortillas with pork and pico de gallo and a mild green tomatillo sauce. (The mistake probably occurred because our server that night, while very obliging, seemed uncertain in English and, unfortunately, I don't speak Spanish.) I did get to try the red chile sauce later with a burrito, and it was rich and meaty.
The most satisfying of the dishes we tried among the house specialties were the carnitas, a clean and simple serving of knuckle-size pork tips, somewhat dry but tender, and a refreshing side of avocado slices. On the opposite end of the scale are the restaurant's fried tacos. A treat for fans of fair food, they dripped with oil when they were lifted from the plate.
An avocado was the center and saving grace in a vegetarian chimichanga, a dense, chewy, under-fried flour tortilla. There was too little pico de gallo on the plate and too much sour cream — a scoop of at least 3 ounces. With half an avocado in the chimichanga, the guacamole seemed unnecessary. But the Mexican rice was dry and fluffy with the occasional pea or corn kernel.
We tried the margarita made with Presidente brandy, orange liqueur and a dash of Coca Cola. It was fruity and interesting, but I'll probably stick with tequila next time.
It's likely Frida's has not yet hit its stride. Given that the venerable Molly's La Casita is just a few blocks east on Madison, it will need to step up its game.
Frida’s Restaurante Mexicano
Address: 1718 Madison
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Reviewer’s choice: Carnitas ($12.99); Burrito de chile Colorado ($10.99).