Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo — famous for self-portraits she made of herself wearing ornate, brightly colored dresses and for her unmistakable, sometimes furrowed unibrow — had an unwavering loyalty to her country.
When Julieta Bocos retold a story about the depths of Kahlo's allegiance, her voice rose to an excited pitch just below shrill.
"She dressed up every day in the Mexican dresses with flowers in her hair," says Julieta Bocos, who along with her husband, Victor, opened Casa Frida Mexican Grill in early 2012 in the shadow of the looming Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. "She went to dinners with the Rockefellers and still wore her dresses and all of her heavy jewelry."
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Being inside Casa Frida is like being inside a dry cleaner that caters only to Kahlo. The walls were covered in a full spectrum of bursting colors in which the painter regularly adorned herself. The longest wall in the 60-seat restaurant is painted a bright, sandy orange and a deep royal purple and is adorned with dozens of Kahlo's self-portraits. A narrow board painted sunflower yellow and a single row of intricate Mexican tile separate the two colors. A copper-plated bar is topped with black granite and surrounded by bright-pink and orange walls dotted with flowers, small pieces of artwork, and a thick-framed mirror.
Sensory overload? Definitely. But the warmth given off by the Bocos and their staff makes it homey.
The Bocoses' passion for their country's culture comes through when the two describe their dishes in intricate detail. Julieta is secretive but passionate as she surrenders a few details about the 24-hour process that yields their mole (pronounced mole-AY) sauce, the smoky, sweet, and slightly tangy sauce that's used throughout the menu. Sesame seeds, walnuts, bread, and tortilla must be toasted and ground. Pasilla, mulato, and 14 other kinds of peppers are roasted and slowly mixed in, along with chocolate. All of the ingredients must be added in proper proportions, in a specific order.
"If she [the cook] overtosses one thing, she messes up the entire sauce," she says. "To find the perfect balance from the chocolate to the pepper is very hard."
The Bocoses, who were both raised in Mexico City and met in Cancún, say they use their mothers' and grandmothers' recipes, making nearly everything from scratch. At Casa Frida, Victor, who is easily more than six feet tall, saunters around the restaurant wearing an airy, short-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt with palm fronds, playing host. Julieta wears her jet-black hair pulled back into a tight bun with bangs. She wears a black shirt and pale-pink lipstick along with an affable smile and a black apron. In each bite, what they really offer is a glimpse into Mexico's rich, often tumultuous history, stretching back thousands of years. And they do it at a price lower than any corporate, happy-hour-boosting "Mexican" restaurant. They do it with simple, bright flavors. Fresh salsas, made in-house daily, start each meal, and slow-roasted meats, cooked with ancestral ingredients, reveal a smoky richness.
Chicken for tamales ($3) is simmered in a red mole sauce, shredded and packed inside a shell of masa, a sweet, starchy corn dough. The simple dish, which at Casa Frida is wrapped with a leaf and steamed, dates back thousands of years. The Aztecs and Mayans used to send soldiers to war or hunters on long trips with these prepackaged meals. The masa for Casa Frida's tamales is firm but light enough to soak up plenty of the smoky, sweet mole sauce, reason to not leave behind small bits.
Julieta says the restaurant's signature dishes are any made with cochinita pibil. Before slow roasting, a pork leg is marinated overnight in orange juice and achiote, a condiment made of ground-up annato seeds that give it a bright-red color.
"The Mayans used to paint their faces with it," Bocos adds.
That succulent meat is piled onto two boat-shaped cups of crispy fried masa called Los Panuchos ($7.50) and topped with pickled red onion that gives each bite a fresh pop. Refried black beans and seasoned white rice studded with corn kernels round out the plate.
Mexican food continues to be brutally bastardized by Taco Bell and other offenders, but the Bocoses hope to counter the damage with their slow-cooked, complex dishes.
"We're really trying to change the idea that Mexican food is Tex-Mex," Julieta says. "No one in Mexico eats burritos! We didn't know what a burrito was until we moved to the U.S."
Indeed, the Bocoses' pedigree is in high-end dining. Victor was most recently sommelier for celebrity chef Todd English's nearby da Campo Osteria restaurant. On two visits, we found Victor darting about Casa Frida, convincing diners to order midday margaritas and boasting about the specials. The two moved from Mexico to Chicago in 1992 to work on the corporate side of Rosebud Restaurants, a company that owns nearly a dozen restaurants across the city. In 2000, the pair bought a condominium in Fort Lauderdale to escape the cold each January. In 2009, they moved down for good.
"Moving from Cancún to Chicago was a nightmare," Julieta says. "I wanted to kill my husband that first winter."
Victor handled the company's wine program and special events while Julieta took care of VIPs.
"Do you know what posole is?" he asks. The blood-red soup, which we didn't try, comes with slow-roasted pork shoulder, big tender kernels of hominy corn, oregano, and crushed chili and dates back to the era before European explorers arrived. The Aztecs ritually ate an ancient version of this soup during special occasions. At times, it was said to have been made with human meat.
Julieta is likewise eager to explain the depth of each element of the restaurant, that the glass jars on each table, filled with jalapeño peppers, disks of carrot and cauliflower florets, are called escabeche. "I'll bring you some chips so you can try it," she says before disappearing into a door near the open kitchen. The pickled vegetables are numbingly spicy alone or with a chip but, cut up and added to any dish, make the perfect hot sauce.
Steak norteña ($12) originated in northern Mexico and is a huge offering that was nearly impossible to finish as the restaurant fills up during the weekday lunch hour. The kitchen, staffed by cooks from Mexico City, managed to cook a thin strip steak, larger than a man's hand with outstretched fingers, to a perfect medium rare. It is accompanied by two enchiladas stuffed with piquant, sweet onions and cheese topped with a smoky sweet green tomatillo sauce. The price seems even more a bargain as the plate is expectedly filled out by refried black beans, rice, and a healthy dollop of smooth guacamole that holds an acidic punch.
The Bocoses' small wait staff followed their lead. Servers eagerly explained unfamiliar dishes and checked in after each bite. Julieta says she wants Casa Frida to be cozy. It is, thanks to warm service, despite the sensory overload from the walls.
The Bocoses have taken on the doubly hard tasks of fighting the stereotypical perceptions of Mexican food and trying to reeducate people where they've already formed opinions. However, the chocolate in the chili sauce and the constant plying of guests with a glass of wine or a margarita is the right way to start. Sure, they've got a long way to go before putting Taco Bell out of business, but we hope to be there every step of the way.