Frankie's was spawned collaboratively by Tracie Barthlow, operator of a handful of Bridges Gourmet Coffee Shops, and Frankie Carabetta, operator of Frantoni's Italian Café on Henderson before it was choked off by Central Expressway construction. They went into the venture as 50/50 partners. Yet as opening day was approaching, the pair found themselves in legal squabbles. Barthlow slapped Carabetta with a fraud suit, claiming he was engineering kickbacks from the business to himself via construction contractors. Then Carabetta allegedly used Barthlow's American Express card to settle a significant gambling debt. When Barthlow confronted Carabetta about his novel "don't leave home without it" card usage, he began pummeling himself about the face with a wire brush until he was bruised and bloodied. "Desperate men do desperate things," he said in the midst of his self-imposed flogging.
For some reason, Barthlow decided to sever her ties with Carabetta. But his spirit lives on in this sports bar tucked into the former Spasso's space on McKinney Avenue at Hall Street. The terrific thing about Frankie's, in addition to much of the food, is that it's open all day. So you can stop in for a late lunch or an early supper because after seven or so, it gets loud, bustling, and very smoky.
Frankie's menu is a prim twist on bar food with little extras such as Thai buffalo wings, yellow fin sashimi, and barbecued duck quesadillas, which were extraordinary. Served as a stack of elegant narrow triangles on a lettuce-carpeted plate, the quesadillas were thin, crisp, and greaseless with well-dispersed cheese that wasn't overwhelmingly gooey. The duck flesh was ample, sweet, moist, and mildly sluiced with a sweet, tangy barbecue sauce.
Less striking was Frankie's salad, an overly ample puff of greens with barely perceptible specks of hearts of palm, crumbles of feta cheese, and slivers of artichoke coupled with sections of tomato that were faded, flavor-deficient, and a bit waxy. And though the menu made note of kalamatas, we had a hard time uncovering any from the foliage. Frankie's salad would have the potent impact of a wire-brush pummel if the accoutrements were a bit more plentiful and the tomatoes a bit more lusty.
Which is how the Southern fried chicken came across. Rather than the typical dismembered half corpse that's battered and fried, Frankie's fried chicken version is simply a piece of breast battered and singed into submission in a skillet. It was more like chicken-fried chicken, which is mostly how chicken should be fried. The results were remarkable. The breast was plump and drooling with moisture. The batter was crisp, thick, and well seasoned. Even the cream gravy was smooth and flush with flavor.
Everything else on the plate proved to be flawed, perhaps to foil this extraordinary sports bar's centerpiece. A dollop of mashed potatoes was watery and bland, while a sheaf of thin asparagus stalks splashed with lemon was shriveled and willowy instead of crisp.
Yet these are minor blemishes for a place that covers the walls with ESPN banter and sepia-toned vintage NFL film footage depicting guys wearing leather prophylactics on their heads. It's difficult to see how linguini with chicken and shrimp pairs with bloodied prizefighters and flambéed race-car rubber. But it sure works well in the mouth. Served in a black bowl, the linguini was perfectly cooked, though the sauce, purportedly an herb-lemongrass blend, was of a more conventional stripe than the menu description would imply. Yet there's no denying the aggressive virility of the meats. Chicken slices were sweaty, tender and flavorful while the shrimp were obese and firm with vigorously sweet, briny flavors.
Frankie's is a series of subtle discordances. For instance, on the tables are perched little votive candles fashioned in the shape of tiny Tiffany-style lamps. The room is plastered in lots of wood, and the bar wavers with feminine curves.
Service from the wait staff was gracious and attentive without being intrusive, even when you have to distract them from an ESPN rush, which can be often. (On a late lunch visit, there were no salt and pepper shakers or flatware at our table.) Our server said he had sampled each of the sandwich suggestions I tossed out for consideration, and he promptly recommended his favorite.
So I bit, and I wasn't disappointed. Well, maybe a little. The beef sandwich au jus came between a boring roll: cold, bleached, and without much flavor. But the beef was good and rich, if a little tough. The roll was slathered with Dijon mustard, which gave it a nice bite, and there were onions in the jus, which lent sweetness. Plus, the housemade chips, dark brown and stiff, were thin, crisp, and tasty.
The Garden of Eden vegetarian sandwich, an anomaly in a sports bar, was also good. Avocado, mushrooms, and red bell peppers were packed between two mustard-smeared slices of nine-grain bread with sprouts--lots of sprouts. So many, the sandwich almost seemed hairy. A pair of tomato slices would have capped off this sandwich nicely, and perhaps minimized the fuzziness. A side of thin fries was crisp and well seasoned.
Frankie's is a sports bar, to be sure. But even if watching sports on the tube isn't your thing, that doesn't mean you can't brush up on your sports-bar cuisine. Frankie wouldn't have it any other way.