"There's Mexican food, and there's the food of Mexico."
That sounds simple enough, but for Casa Frida owners Victor and Julieta Bocos, it's a constant refrain, and one they've printed on their menus.
That's because there are no chimichangas at Casa Frida. The word "fajitas" is not heard here. The Bocos, both Mexican-born, moved to South Florida from Chicago four years ago, when sommelier Victor was offered a position at da Campo Osteria, the Italian restaurant on the Intracoastal.
Because of its huge Mexican-American population, Chicago — where "we lived 15 winters," Victor says — offered plenty of authentic Mexican restaurants. The same wasn't true in Fort Lauderdale.
So the Bocos quietly opened Casa Frida 14 months ago for breakfast and lunch, while Victor continued to work as a sommelier. The restaurant developed a loyal fan base. Eight months ago, he became a full-time restaurant owner, and we are all better for it. It says something about Fort Lauderdale's maturing restaurant scene when, on a recent Saturday night, we had to wait half an hour for a table.
The intimate, 50-seat Casa Frida is packed with Frida Kahlo posters, folk art and all kinds of Mexicana. The wooden chairs aren't the most comfortable. But you can almost forget your discomfort when you start eating.
The Bocos employ two chefs. During the day, Leticia Benites is an old-fashioned, home-style Mexican cook who makes the complex mole sauces and outstanding refried beans. At night, chef Nestor Padilla creates masterpieces using Benites' prep.
You'll want to start with guacamole ($8), which I called some of the best in Broward County shortly after Casa Frida opened. It's not prepared table-side or served in one of those stone molcajetes. No bells and whistles — just solid, not-too-salty guac.
Victor put together a small, reasonably priced wine list. Albariño is a perfect accompaniment to Mexican food. The restaurant also serves glasses of clericot ($6), which Victor calls "Mexican sangria." It's made with a blend of red wine, dried fruit, fresh fruit and cinnamon that ferments before being served.
Add the house-made chorizo to queso fundido ($9), a kind of Mexican fondue of Chihuahua cheese, mushrooms and roasted poblano peppers served with soft, flour tortillas. Taquitos dorados ($5) are crispy taquitos stuffed with potatoes and cheese and then topped with lettuce and creamy green sauce. Mexican food can be subtle.
Choosing what to eat here can be difficult, because so much of it is new and so much of it sounds enticing. Let the staff direct you. Mixiote ($18.95), for instance, is a combination of lamb, pork and beef that's marinated in a guajillo pepper and achiote-based concoction. It's wrapped in a banana leaf along with fresh cactus, corn and potatoes and then steamed. The fragrant result isn't spicy, just big flavored and almost smoky.
Cochinita pibil ($13) is slow-roasted after first being marinated in achiote citrus juice. This fork-tender pork is served with pickled red onions, rice and beans. An octopus special ($16.50) combines the traditions of Mexico and Spain when tender baby octopus is cooked with onions, potatoes, olives, roasted chipotle and fresh tomato white-wine sauce.
Beans here are refried in vegetable oil, and not lard, but they're so rich you'd think otherwise. The kitchen was serving black beans the night we dined, but other nights it may offer yellow or red beans. It's a myth that pintos are the only legume on the Mexican table.
You won't go wrong with chiles rellenos ($14) or enchiladas Frida ($13), stuffed with chicken and topped with roasted tomatillo sauce, cream and melted cheese. This is "suizas," or Swiss-style, because of the addition of cream
The nice dessert menu that includes flan de la abulea ($5), which isn't as creamy as the Cuban flan we've grown accustomed to. Churros ($5), however, are lovely, warm sticks of sugary sweetness.
All is not perfect at Casa Frida. Service can be extremely awkward. We'd made a reservation earlier in the day, yet were told we didn't have one. Thus, our 30-minute wait. Someone needs to man the door to welcome guests and update them on the status of their table.
I'm hopeful Casa Frida will smooth out these issues. Because this authentic Mexican restaurant deserves to be around for a very long time.
5441 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot