Frida’s Patio owner Tania Jimenez was born in Mexico City, but came to live in the United States when she was a little girl. You have to listen closely to detect the faintest trace of an accent when she greets you at the host stand.
But evidence of her connection to her birthplace is splashed all over the dining room, in bold tropical colors. On one wall, you’ll find a larger-than-life mural portrait of the restaurant’s namesake (and fellow Mexico City native) the artist Frida Kahlo. Along the opposite wall is a bar top decorated with stylized shapes evocative of Mayan carvings. There are dia del muerto figures at every turn.
If Jimenez’s roots are interwoven throughout the decor, you might say the self-styled “nuevo Latin fusion” menu — developed with veteran chef and co-owner Eddie Rosales — branches out to embrace both her native and adopted homes.
Tacos are a prime (and colorful) example. Six variations on the theme are offered, pairing traditional taqueria fillings with a rainbow assortment of homemade corn tortillas. Carnitas are served in a beet-dyed red tortilla, topped with chopped onions and cilantro. Chicken tinga comes in a green (spinach) tortilla, and carne asada is served up in a natural yellow tortilla. There’s even a purple (beans) tortilla, which you can get with your choice of two fillings: vegetarian, or citrus-marinated shrimp with chipotle mayo.
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Tacos come three to an order, with rice and beans served on the side in a cast iron baking dish — a thoughtful touch. You can’t mix and match tacos, but I see no reason why you couldn’t order, say, al pastor tacos (marinated pork and grilled pineapple) in purple tortillas instead of the default yellow.
The name of the dish notwithstanding, an appetizer offering of ceviche a la Mexicana veers off the beaten path, taking the form of a sort of mashup of ceviche and coctel de camaron. It’s a worthwhile detour, served up in a large goblet garnished with pineapple leaves and a trio of jumbo shrimp dangling from the rim.
The Tijuana Caesar salad is an intriguing play on the fusion theme, with hard-boiled egg, queso fresco, and the Mexican herb hoja santa injecting a distinctive note vaguely reminiscent of sassafras to the customary mix.
A shareable starter of Mexican-style corn on the cob — rolled in mayo, queso fresco and chili powder, and served with chicharron (fried pork skins) — will get your meal off to a more traditional start. So will a sampler platter called snack chingón (a slang word that loosely translates to “extra awesome” or big shot), which lives up to its cheeky name with a generous sampling of chicken taquitos, beef empanadas, a carnitas quesadilla and chunky guacamole.
A respectful rendering of the Yucatecan classic cochinita pibil, featuring tender chunks of citrus- and annatto-marinated slow-roasted pork, will keep you happily on the traditional path for your main course. So will carne asada: 12 ounces of rib-eye, grilled to order and topped with guajillo sauce and a skewer of grilled green onion, jalapeño and a lime wedge, and served with rice, beans and (when it’s available) nopales salad.
Frida’s take on a chile relleno is a refreshing change from the the invariably soggy egg-battered norm: a large roasted poblano, split open and filled like a loaded potato with shrimp, vegetables, rice and melted cheese, served with scratch-made charro beans and sweet plantains.
Frida’s signature burrito is classic California style (translation: big as your forearm), bulging with your choice of carnitas, chicken, carne asada, shrimp or grilled vegetables, plus black beans, rice, shredded lettuce and cheese. Topped with sour cream, pico de gallo, crumbled queso blanco and avocado slices, and served with those excellent sweet plantains, it delivers some serious bang for your 12 bucks (two more if you opt for shrimp).
For dessert, skip the grainy flan and opt instead for fried sweet plantains — that’s right, even if they came with your entree. Trust me, you’ll want more. Plus, the dessert version comes with three scoops of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream drizzled with cajeta (aka dulce de leche), which the menu for some reason translates as “Nutella.” It isn’t, but you won’t care.
The wait staff are eager to please, by and large, but widely varied in experience. Still, food still gets delivered in a timely manner, thanks to unselfish team service.
In warm weather (have faith, it’s coming!), a large, semi-secluded patio adds substantially to the restaurant’s appeal. Tucked in at the end of the Millpond Village strip mall, overlooking trees and a pond, it’s one of Cary’s most inviting al fresco options, and truly deserves its place in the restaurant’s name. And fittingly, the word “patio” is the same in English and Spanish.
3470 Kildaire Farm Road, Suite 160, Cary
Rating: 3 stars
Atmosphere: casual, tropically colorful
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: snack chingon, Mexican-style corn, ceviche, tacos, chile relleno, carne asada, sweet plantains
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children (kids menu and kids eat free Wednesdays with an adult entree); modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.