As if Ann Arbor had collectively cried, “We want cheap food, but enough with the burgers already,” three new downtown restaurants opened within a few weeks of each other. All are casual spots featuring sandwiches, with not a traditional burger to be seen.
Frita Batidos, which opened December 7 in the former Café du Jour on Washington, gets closest to burger territory. Owner Eve Aronoff, of the high-toned Kerrytown restaurant Eve, spent a lot of her childhood in Miami and has long dreamed of bringing fritas and batidos (“Cuban-inspired burgers and shakes”) to Ann Arbor. But Ray Kroc wouldn’t recognize Aronoff’s signature frita–it’s a house-made chorizo patty topped with house-made shoestring potatoes on house-baked brioche. Though Aronoff makes no claim to Cuban authenticity, she allows this frita to get pretty close in terms of the basic ingredients (in terms of the artisanal execution, Cubans should have it so good). She also offers her own original takes on the frita in turkey, fish, beef, and black bean versions.
Frita Batidos takes a similar deconstructed, from-scratch approach to the Cuban pressed sandwich, made on a Cuban bread Aronoff’s been developing (“None of us were bakers, but for the last eight months we’ve been staying up all night learning,” she says), with thick-cut bacon, lemongrass roasted pork, and tasso ham. Her tropical-flavored batidos come in flavors like coconut and passion fruit.
And that’s just lunch. For breakfast she’ll be serving Cuban omelets, homemade churros, homemade guava jam, mango French toast, and coffee drinks of a provenance Alice Waters would probably like to get her hands on (starting with a coffee farm in Honduras where Aronoff’s involvement was so up close and personal she’s still nursing a fractured sacrum from a fall there; the coffee is then roasted to her specification at Zingerman’s).
Aronoff herself is a night owl: “I’ll take the night shift! That’s what I’ve been saying my whole life,” she says. So she got a liquor license that will let her fortify batidos (it’s approved but not yet in place–“we’re on the home stretch,” she says), which should beef up late-night traffic. “People are always saying it’s hard to get good food at night that’s super-tasty.”
The ambiance is totally counterintuitive. Expecting hot, tropical colors? She went with white on white with a little silver, from floor to ceiling: “It’s so clean, isn’t it? I didn’t want it to be too themey.”
“Being inside Frita Batidos is like being inside her brain,” says C. Andrew Connell, Aronoff’s longtime manager at Eve.
“Well, he knows what that’s like,” Aronoff admits.
Frita Batidos seats fifty and has thirty employees. “What a ratio!” Aronoff says, seeming momentarily a little stunned at her own numbers. “But remember we’re open practically round the clock.” Those fifty will sit at white-painted picnic tables, a nod to south Florida outdoor culture (she’ll even have dominoes available). A street-side takeout window is another nod to Cuban culture. Aronoff has four partners: managing partner Tom Nordman, classy downtown makeover artists Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell, and Zana Zagana, better known as the ZZ of ZZ’s Produce on Packard.
If the concept sounds as if it’s flying a little too high for mere mortals to afford, think again. Most sandwiches are in the $7-10 range (though the Cuban pressed sandwich is $13). Aronoff says: “I worked really hard to keep the prices down, because I wanted people to know that you can get food that’s real and locally sourced and seasonal, and it doesn’t have to be an extravagance.”
Frita Batidos, 117 W. Washington, 761-2882. Sun.-Wed. 7 a.m.-midnight, Thurs.-Sat. 7 a.m.-2 a.m. (opens at 11 a.m. until January 3). fritabatidos.com