frida’s mexican beach house: the ellman family scores another culinary home run

Fridas-Mexican-Beachouse-Maui-19-1030x687Some people are natural-born restaurateurs. Such is the case with Mark and Judy Ellman. Hailing from Southern California, this entrepreneurial pair has been in the restaurant business for three decades. Shortly after landing on Maui in 1985, they opened Avalon Restaurant & Bar in Lahaina, and Mark, along with 11 other local chefs of note, formed the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement, characterized by the utilization of fresh, local ingredients to create fusion-style dishes inspired by cuisines and cooking techniques from around the world.

Nowadays, the Ellmans, along with daughters Ariana and Michelle, operate a triptych of waterfront eateries in Lahaina, all situated in a tidy row on Front Street: Mala Ocean Tavern, Honu Seafood & Pizza, and their newest creation, Frida’s Mexican Beach House.

“Our journey into establishing Frida’s began with my wife Judy,” says Chef Mark. “She had the vision, and decided it was time to have a really good Latin-fusion restaurant on Maui. The perfect opportunity came when the building next to our two other restaurants became available.” Opened in early 2015, Frida’s features authentic and eclectic Mexican cuisine, along with other dishes influenced by Central and South American styles of cooking.

But who is Frida, the restaurant’s namesake? Frida Kahlo de Rivera was a Mexican painter best known for her self-portraits. Her work has been celebrated in Mexico as emblematic of national and indigenous tradition, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form. Kahlo had a volatile marriage with the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She suffered lifelong health problems, many caused by a traffic accident she survived as a teenager. Recovering from her injuries isolated her from other people, and this isolation influenced her works, many of which are self-portraits of one sort or another. “I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best,” she famously said.

Frida Kahlo’s most popular painting, “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” depicts her against a background of jungle-like leaves. As you enter Frida’s Beach House, the walls surrounding the bar area to your left are adorned with wallpaper in a similar leaf pattern. The open-air dining room boasts a commanding ocean view best enjoyed from a table on the charming wooden-rail lanai, which oozes beach house-style ambiance.

It’s a family reunion this evening. My son, Tyler, is visiting from the Mainland, and he, my husband Charles, and I are all die-hard Mexican food fans. Our server is Gerry, who happens to be Mark Ellman’s sister, and who also happens to be Frida’s number one requested waitperson. It’s easy to see why. Her down-to-earth, affable style makes her a winner in our book also.

Gerry brings us a basket of chips accompanied by an enticing-looking salsa she says contains “everything but the kitchen sink,” and is “made with lots of love.” It’s nothing but love we feel as we happily nosh on light-as-air chips dipped in the little bowl of goodness that has just the right blend of flavor and heat. The sun is setting, and a cool breeze washes over us while waves gently break at the nearby shoreline.

Next, we dive into a bowl of Chicken Tortilla Soup ($9/11) and the Ensalada Azteca ($14). The soup is composed of generous chunks of chicken and vegetables in a hearty broth whose depth of flavor tastes as though it’s been simmering on the back burner for hours (it likely has!). A squirt of fresh lime makes it pop, while thin, crispy tortilla ribbons add a crunchy element. We can’t get enough of this hearty, soul-satisfying concoction.

The salad is its own work of art on a plate: tortilla strips, pico, queso, black beans, and corn are arranged in wide stripes atop a plate of crisp romaine lettuce. Slices of the most flawless avocado you’ll ever see (and eat) provide the crowning glory, along with a creamy chipotle ranch dressing that brings everything together with the right amount of heat and tang. Olé!

Other tempting-looking antojitos (“little cravings”) on the menu are ‘Ahi Albondigas Soup (‘ahi meatballs, avocado oil, cilantro, and onion—$9/11); Manchego Crusted Quesadilla (goat cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream—$12); and Crispy Duck Wings (with mango salsa and chipotle sauce—$13).

I don’t usually discuss restaurant bathrooms, but the ladies’ room at Frida’s is another Judy Ellman masterpiece: terra-cotta hued ceramic tiles interspersed with those of colorful Mexican designs; hammered copper sinks, and a Frida Kahlo self-portrait mounted on the wall, as though she’s keeping an eye on things in her namesake restaurant. Charles reports the men’s room is similarly well appointed.

Our entrées are served on vibrant Mexican-patterned plates that make you smile. Tyler’s Mala Burrito ($18.75) looks like it’s at least a foot long. There are 9 choices of meat (well, one choice is actually veggies), and Tyler has selected carne asada (skirt steak with garlic and guajillo chile peppers). The stuffed-to-the-gills burrito is “served wet with the works,” garnished with queso and cilantro, and served alongside generous dollops of guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo.

Charles has chosen the Rib Eye Mojo de Ajo ($35). A sizable portion of tender medium-rare beef is smothered in a tangy citrus sauce, along with whole roasted garlic and pico de gallo. Black beans topped with queso and rice infused with cilantro round out this unctuous dish.

For my entree, I’ve selected the Fresh Fish Veracruz ($29). this evening it’s mahimahi bathed in a delightfully savory (but not too spicy) tomato sauce with green olives, capers, and more of that gorgeous avocado. As with Charles’ entree, black beans sprinkled with queso and cilantro-infused rice round out this delectable dish.

One of the best things about Frida’s is how approachable the food is. You can order familiar items such as Huevos Rancheros ($15), Chile Relleno ($18.75), Two Taco Plate ($19), or Two Enchilada Plate ($20). Or you can be more adventurous and order the highly recommended Grill Spanish Octopus ($35) with spicy tomatillo salsa, avocado, and pico de gallo.

The dessert menu at Frida’s consists of a nice blend of traditional south-of-the-border treats, along with island-influenced creations. My men and I have ordered Churros with Chocolate Sauce and Mexican Flan (both $9). The churros are warm, doughy in the middle, and crunchy on the outside, and we love how the sugar sticks to our lips and fingers. The chocolate dipping sauce is the perfect accompaniment.

And then there’s the flan: it’s a melt-in-your mouth creamy, dreamy, custardy, caramel-y, completely outrageous version of this traditional Mexican dessert. Quite possibly the best flan I’ve ever tasted. Excelente, mi amigos! It’s been a fun and tasty evening at Frida’s. Everything from Gerry’s excellent and efficient service, to the food and ambiance, have been spot on. Leave it to the Ellmans to put yet another successful notch in their culinary belt!

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Frida’s Mexican Beach House, serving authentic and eclectic Mexican cuisine, as well as other dishes inspired by Central and South America, in a fun, beach-house style casual, oceanfront atmosphere.

WHERE •

1287 Front Street, Lahaina.

WHEN •

Open daily for lunch from 11am to 3pm; Happy Hour from 3 to 4:30pm; Dinner from 4:30 to 9:30pm (9pm on Sunday).

HOW •

Reservations recommended: 661-1287; fridasmaui.com.

 

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