I’ve never had lemonade in a bag before. The plastic was cool and flexible in my hand; the top of the bag twisted around a straw. When I set it down it rolled around lazily on the white picnic table, bumping into the small metal dish of dominoes. I liked cradling it my hand before taking a sip – fresh, powerful, and intensely tart – the best tasting water balloon I’ve ever had. I joke, but it’s this novel experience that sticks out most in my mind after my visit to Frita Batidos. To order something conventional and be presented with something rather extraordinary, something with bold flavors that seemed alive on the tongue, a true mark of style – it was the best way to start a meal.
Frita Batidos, on W. Washington, is a street food-inspired restaurant, so far without a parallel competitor. Opened in 2010 by Chef Eve Aronoff, Frita Batidos has proven to be a favorite across campus for its unique take on soul food served up at fast-food speeds. The restaurant, as its name suggests, is primarily known for its design-your-own frita, Chef Eve’s version of the traditional Cuban street food sandwich, and the rich, creamy batido, similar to a milkshake.
The Cuban influence is also clear in the rest of the menu with a favorite sandwich aptly named the “Inspired Cuban,” offered along with items like crisped plantains, black bean cream soup, and cinnamon sugar churros. However, Eve stresses that Frita Batidos is not the place for those seeking authentic Cuban food or even a reinvented version. The food is purposely distanced from the commonness of rice and beans and is like nothing you’d find in any other Latin restaurant. “I didn’t want it to be a theme restaurant,” she explains. “I wanted to create a feeling, not a statement.” The stark white walls and tables are a far cry from the bright neon colors and beaded sombreros of a stereotypical Latin American eatery. “The restaurant is designed to be like a canvas, a backdrop that enhances the food,” she says. As there are only a few long tables, patrons are encouraged to sit together and interact. Shawn and I shared our churros with group sitting next to us. To Eve, the menu of Frita Batidos is a representation of her own style of cooking – bold, whimsical, and cleverly balanced – but the restaurant itself also seamlessly incorporates her love of Cuban culture.
So if it’s not Cuban food, what exactly is it? In short, it’s Eve. The intense flavors, the incorporation of ingredients from many different cuisines, and the importance placed on mixing different tastes and textures, is not reminiscent of a single type of food. The food at Frita Batidos is an adventure in culinary creativity for the customer and the chef.
The frita menu is left open-ended, allowing you to choose the base (chorizo, black bean, chicken, fish, or beef) and then add as many toppings as you want. Choices include muenster cheese, a sunny-side up egg, and cilantro-lime salsa (each at an additional charge). The toppings are all designed to complement the frita no matter the combination. But in line with the ease and casual atmosphere of the restaurant, the menu is not set in stone. Eve admits that her go-to favorite is something not officially on the menu: coconut ginger rice with picadillo and salsa. Nothing about Frita Batidos is cookie cutter, she remarks. It’s customers first. And when it comes to custom creations,“if we can do it, we want to do it.”
My first trip to Frita Batidos I got a chorizo frita with tropical slaw. It was good, a little messy, and packed with contrasting flavors, textures, and temperatures. My second trip, Shawn and I indulged on a beef frita with cilantro-lime salsa and a sunny-side up egg (the beef frita is only $5 during Happy Hour). Notice that in both cases, the savory frita is paired with a lighter, fresher element, a choice I find keep things interesting. Additionally, if you’re like me and have trouble eating giant sandwiches, I highly recommend attacking your frita with a knife and fork. Not only is it considerably easier to eat, but part of the appeal of Frita Batidos dishes is the careful layering of ingredients. If you’re just cavemanning it, you may find it difficult to get a little of everything in each bite and therefore will miss out on the full range of flavor.
We also sampled the garlic cilantro fries, a basket of true decadence. The fries are served with a cilantro lime dipping sauce and the combination is just short of lethal. A word of advice though, since the frita is already served with fries, you may want to save the garlic cilantro fries for a late-night snack or as a side to one of the other sandwiches offered.
One such sandwich is the “Inspired Cuban,” the favorite dish of Frita manager, Sophia. It consists of lemongrass roast pork, bacon, ham, gruyere cheese, cornichons (French pickles), and chipotle mayo - in other words, a pork-lover’s dream. Although you can get the full sandwich outright, we opted for a lighter option combo and got a half sandwich with the Big Bright Salad as our side. Shawn was crazy about the the Inspired Cuban, but perhaps I’m just not enough of a bacon lover. If you love everything that is rich, salty pork – you will love this sandwich. I appreciated the pickles and their contribution of acid to the dish, but I found myself quickly overwhelmed with the heaviness of flavors. I instead snacked on the salad, which though for me had a touch too much dressing, was a delicious layering of romaine, piquillo peppers, mango, citrus crisps and fried plantains.
As always, I found myself gravitating towards the sweeter things in life. Shameful, really. We got the “Churros Español,” a dessert of three large churros rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with a chocolate español, a thick, spiced hot chocolate. The portion is easily enough for two people, maybe even three. The churros were crisp and chewy and fun to dunk into the warm, semi-sweet chocolate. We were like kids with fresh baked cookies and a tall glass of milk.
But I still would have to say that my favorite sweet tooth satisfier is the batido. We each got one – coconut cream and passionfruit – and ordered it with a shot of rum ($2 extra). I highly recommend taking advantage of this option if possible. The batidos are as flavorful as a fresh juice but as sinfully rich as a homemade milkshake. The addition of rum just bumps everything up a level. The sweetness and coolness of the batidos is a welcomed friend to contrast the salty/savory nature of the fritas.
Although we did not partake at this occasion, Frita offers a house-made sangria served hot in winter to combat the lovely Michigan weather. Other alcoholic drinks are also available, made with only fresh ingredients and served in giant fishbowl glasses.
And if you’re on a budget or just like getting food and drinks at a discount, Frita Batidos offers a Happy Hour from 4 -6pm, Sunday -Thursday as well as the last hour of service on any given day. But even more exciting perhaps is Lovefest, a special event organized for large parties. After giving a quick notice to the restaurant, you can come by any day after 10 pm with 20 guests and indulge in a Lovefest. The group can order as much food as it wants ( not everyone has to order) and as a reward for coming in the restaurant will give out free multiple course snacks to everyone in the group. Not a bad deal at all.
After a few visits there, it’s easy to see why Frita Batidos has become so popular. It’s not about Cuban food or the fishbowl mojitos. It’s the fact that Frita Batidos is fun. It’s a downtown restaurant with community seating and dominoes on the table. It’s a place where you can be known by your frita order and where you can argue with your friends over which combination is the best. Nobody cares if you want to dunk your fries in your batido like it's a Wendy's frosty. The customer comes first. And if you can’t find something you like off the menu, they’ll make something special just for you. Plus, although it’s off of Main St, the prices are reasonable and sneakers are the norm. It’s fast food, street food, dive food – but then it’s fresh, bright, and approachably gourmet. It’s not Cuban, it’s not pretentious. It’s just fun.