As a fan of Eve Aronoff’s elegant eponymous restaurant in Kerrytown, I kept an eager eye on her casual new place, Frita Batidos, during months of construction delays. Peering through gaps in the brown-papered windows on West Washington, I watched walls brighten and long white picnic tables line up. I’d heard that the menu was to be high-concept but simple fare, Cuban inspired but creatively interpreted. Yet I still wasn’t prepared for the novelty, spice, and even emotion this narrow space could radiate during its first cold winter weeks.
The Observer’s January Marketplace Changes column detailed the backstory behind Aronoff’s new labor of love (find it on arborweb.com), and this month’s updates her January decision to close her Kerrytown restaurant. So let’s get straight to highlights from Frita Batidos’s namesake food groups:
The fritas: Spicy sandwiches on pillowy house-made brioches, these are like sliders, but bigger and more substantial. Shredded whitefish, black bean, turkey, and chorizo sausage fritas are slightly crumbly patties flavorfully bound by luscious lemony or peppered mayo. The ground beef frita is pure, lean Sparrow Meats ground round, smeared with chili mayo for cool heat. A blanket layer of shoestring fries is standard on all fritas. (Dieters can omit them, and can even substitute lettuce wraps for the brioche, but they’ll miss a really good bun.) You can further temper the spiciness with cheese, runny egg, coleslaw, or mild lime salsa for a buck each–or all four toppings for $3, if you want to go loco.
The batidos: These thick fruit, coconut, or mocha shakes come with a stand-up straw and a paper umbrella. I found the sour orange scrumptious, like a designer Creamsicle. Lighter drinks were also tempting, especially the bracing brewed ginger root, sweetened and served in a plastic bag knotted around the straw, just as it might be on a blistering Caribbean beach. Inside the bag is a floating lime wedge to squeeze before each slurp.
It can get even better. A friend and I lucked into a quiet night early on, when our barista proudly brought us cafe con leche and stayed to talk while we admired the foamy swirls of rich milk, butter(!), and coffee. (Zingerman’s Coffee roasts it with Honduran beans that eve staffers have a stake in.) The tropical salad was one of the few items that didn’t come on a banana-leaf “plate.” Made of fresh local greens and red radicchio in a smoky citrus vinaigrette, and topped with roasted macadamia nuts, dried fruit, avocado, red onion, and a snowfall of cheese and coconut, it was a sweet and savory celebration. A savant sense guided us to a side of garlicky-sweet twice-fried plantain slices, which flirted at the edge of decadence but did not surrender. “Say goodbye to fries and Caesar salad,” my friend proclaimed, polishing off her new favorite pairing.
Intensive attention to detail has obviously gone into this “fast-food” menu, and the ingredients are excellent. But you may not be able to appreciate the quality if you hit a busy time, usually midday, when waiters carrying trays shout out people’s names, Zingerman’s Deli-style. Here, without the gentling effect of the deli’s flappy-sided tent, the shouts bounce off the walls, and the noise distracts both mouth and mind from the well-orchestrated party of flavors.
If you want to avoid both hubbub and crowded communal seating, try going in a small group at a later hour, when lights are dimmer and the salsa music easier to enjoy. Or go for breakfast between 8 and 11 a.m., when the menu includes a wonderful Cuban omelet stuffed with a tangy picadillo of ground beef, green olives, yellow raisins, and twenty-one more ingredients (order the Cuban sloppy joe and you’ll get the same mix on a brioche). There are amazing churros on the morning menu and as dessert all day, but you’ll need a group to consume the sinful trio of cruller-thick, cinnamon-crusted, orange-flavored golden fried pastries. Order a cup of viscous chocolate to dip them in if you dare. (Imagine Washtenaw Dairy donuts gone to heaven–or somewhere else where calories don’t count.)
Fritas and batidos are offered through lunch and dinner to closing, as are side dishes. Dressing-drenched tropical coleslaw got mixed reviews from my companions, especially when they encountered strips of slippery mango amidst the crispy cabbage. Exotic conch fritters were pretty good, though doughy. I wouldn’t pick them over the “best snack ever”: smooth, well-cooked black beans and rice. Called “Moors and Christians” in some Latin American countries, this dish also answers to “comfort food.”
I liked the custom coffee blend but felt like Goldilocks trying to order the right size. Although both good values, the buchito “thimble” shots were too small and tippy in their tiny plastic cups, and the colada pitcher too large for just one person. The mini-cup cortadito with steamed milk didn’t seem worth four bucks. Finally I asked what was closest to a cappuccino and was served a midsized con leche without butter and salt; with or without them, it’s caramelly good.
The coffee slate represents just one way old standbys are reshaped in a fever dream of flavor here. Aronoff’s childhood visits to her grandparents in Miami introduced her to Cuban foods. She explains her long obsession with these dishes in a poster that hangs ceiling to floor. It’s also a love letter to her restaurant team, thanking them for their contributions to the “whimsical menu.”
Four of the six times I visited Frita Batidos in its first month, Aronoff herself was on hand, usually in a coat as white as the walls. She looked tired, which is not surprising considering she just launched the business, hadn’t yet added the planned bar drinks, and is already reportedly reworking some menu items, like the Cuban sandwich. Here’s hoping she’s getting more rest now that she has just one place to run.
I’m glad I partook early and experienced the original concept. But a few changes do seem warranted–particularly to the hectic system of counter ordering, prepaying, and called-out delivering. Some people I’ve talked to also are bothered by the white box starkness. They might try sitting in the window upfront, at the dark-veined, honey-colored wood counter. Or they might meditate on the stylish gray flower painted on the side wall. It’s similar to the restaurant’s logo, but without the sky-blue petals, and my gaze wanders to it when the room gets loud. I appreciate rare blooms still evolving, and look forward to what’s to come.
117 W. Washington St.
Daily 8 a.m.-11 p.m (morning menu available until 11 a.m.).
Sandwiches, $5-$12, salads and sides, $4-$10, desserts, $4-$8.
Inaccessible; two front steps.