Many white American food writers call tacos and other Mexican foods “humble,” but is a cuisine humble if its flavors are brash and bright, its traditions are worn with confidence and its sandwiches are so big they resemble ocean liners?
There’s nothing humble about the tostadas at Frida’s Tacolandia. They have swagger. They have sass. They have mounds of meat — try the finely chopped fajita beef or the zesty chicken tinga, stewed with onions and chipotle chiles — and layers of refried beans, mountains of lettuce and sweeping curves of tomato and avocado. There’s a headstrong handful of queso fresco and a drizzle of crema perched high atop the whole creation like an explorer’s flag fluttering on a mountain peak. As I bite into my tostada de tinga ($3.50 each, $6.50 for two) the crema brushes against my cheek, dots the tip of my nose and lends me a new mustache.
What’s so humble about that?
Frida’s Tacolandia is the vibrant turf of Albertina Martinez and Vianey Sotomayor, who opened this shop in August at the corner of Polk Street and Kiest Boulevard in Oak Cliff. It is also the unofficial realm of artist Frida Kahlo, whose portraits keep watchful eyes over the dining room and adorn the front windows. Kahlo was such an ardent cook that her stepdaughter wrote a book about her dinner parties. At her wedding to Diego Rivera, the couple banned silverware and insisted their guests use tortillas instead.
Under Frida’s gaze, the Dallas restaurant’s interior combines fine art, old Subway tables and a TV often tuned to soccer or Mexican game shows. Sotomayor presides over the dining room and cash register, where she acts as the waitress and welcoming host. Frida’s Tacolandia has a personality all its own.
The specialty is tacos de cabeza, using the meat from a cow’s head: cachete (cheek), lengua (tongue) and maciza (a mix of leaner cuts). Cachete has become one of my all-time favorite taco meats: fatty but not too much, tender, beefy, so boldly flavorful it almost never requires salsa. Frida’s has some of the best in town, rich but not so fatty that it turns into a meat puddle. Asking for onions and cilantro on top can produce a bold shower of the herb.
For those who shy away from fat or grease, the maciza taco here is an excellent alternative, just as rich and flavorful but with a little more crisp texture to the edges of shredded meat. I’m also a fan of the spice rub on Frida’s tacos al pastor. (All tacos are $1.35 or $1.49 on corn tortillas, $1.99 on flour.)
There are sopes, the fried masa discs that make for a thicker, more structurally sound form of tostada ($7 for two). They’re excellent, too, and good vehicles for the fiery red and green salsas. Frida’s makes three salsas: one with jalapeño, one with serrano peppers and cilantro, and a red salsa made with chile japonés, a small red pepper that gets its name because it is also used in Asian cooking. The jalapeño salsa has a loose, watery texture, and the chile japonés offers a refreshing sweet-spicy character that sets it apart from its Dallas rivals. Of the three, the serrano salsa has the strongest punch and, added to a tostada or sope, can stand up to the cascade of other flavors.
On sopes, chicken cries out for salsa — it’s diced and seasoned with black pepper but not much else — and chicken flautas ($7) are mild-mannered without salsa, too. (The tortilla shells are beautifully crisp, though.) And if anything at Frida’s Tacolandia is humble, it’s the rice and refried beans, which are fine but ordinary. The latter are of the chunky variety, with some nearly whole beans for texture.
On the other hand, there’s nothing modest about the restaurant’s sandwiches, including its specialty, the $8.75 Torta Frida, so enormous that it can feed two people with a few bites to spare. The Torta Frida is a variation on the torta cubana, a sort of Mexican Dagwood sandwich that often contains just about every topping in a restaurant’s arsenal. The Torta Frida has, at a minimum, diced fajita beef, chicken, pastor-marinated pork and slices of ham, plus refried beans, avocados, lettuce, tomato and crema.
It’s a magnificent monster. The telera bread is lightly toasted but begins falling apart under the weight almost immediately. At first, this massive sandwich requires two hands, but when the bread begins crumbling beneath the weight of so many kinds of meat, it requires a fork and knife.
My favorite part of the personality at Frida’s is what’s missing. Across three meals, we found nothing that tasted too salty, nothing that was too greasy, no food that was too heavy. It’s remarkable to say that about a place with a four-meat sandwich, but the kitchen (which is just a two-person operation) is generous with its vegetable garnishes and never goes overboard with its frying. Here, the flavors are big but never aggressive.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Watch the white dry-erase board for specials like weekend menudo, chile relleno or tamales. We took a dozen pork tamales to go ($13) and enjoyed them, too, especially when drizzled with the tangy salsa de chile japonés.
The last few years have been great for new restaurants in Oak Cliff. As the Bishop Arts district fell under siege from developers, the rest of the neighborhood enjoyed a growing tide of good, friendly neighborhood spots. La Sultana Antojitos began serving its superb breakfasts just off Westmoreland Road, Limon’s brought excellent Veracruzan food to the far western stretch of Davis Street and Maskaras Mexican Grill began serving luchador-themed specialties at the corner of Illinois Avenue and Kiest.
Now we can add Frida’s Tacolandia to the list. It has a real sense of community and family. Its tostadas have attitude. Frida would be proud.
Frida’s Tacolandia, 1150 W. Kiest Blvd. 469-458-3656. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.