Remembering Frida, fork in hand

When you walk into the storefront space occupied by La Cocina de Frida, a new Mexican restaurant in Andersonville, you cannot escape the vibrant colors that leap off the walls. Vivacious pinks and rich oranges offset by lush greens give the restaurant a unique, truly Mexican feel.

Add to that the plethora of Frida Kahlo self-portraits, photographs, hand written letters, and nick knacks (some donated by Frida-loving customers) and you realize you've just step foot into a Frida Kahlo shrine.

Kahlo was best known as a painter, feminist, and revolutionary. Her culinary abilities were ample but less well-known -- though that may soon change, thanks to this new restaurant.

About half of the menu items come from Frida' cookbook, including the Pollo en Mole Negro, which delivers subtle flavors. It starts spicy, turns smoky and ends sweetly, ensuring that you'll go for another bite.

The other menu items come from family recipes handed down to Lydia and Marlene Benitez, the two sisters who run the restaurant.

Marlene runs the front of the house. Her sister Lydia, an unassuming woman with loving eyes and a serious love for food, runs the kitchen.

One of Lydia's favorite menu items is her grandmother's rice pudding. The recipe contains much more than ingredients;  it comes with a story and a warning.

"Whoever starts stirring the pudding must finish stirring or it will be ruined. You cannot trade off if your arm gets tired, or you want to go over here."

That's how she makes every batch of rice pudding for her customers. And the effort is worth it.

The rice pudding is served warm and with a real cinnamon stick poking out of it. It is creamy, it is sweet, and it is the best rice pudding I've ever had.

A quick brush-up on Latin American history helps to understand Kahlo's art and cuisine.

At age 6, Kahlo was struck with polio that weakened her body. At 18, a car accident nearly killed her. The impact  broke her spine, right leg and pelvis, perforated her uterus and caused her excruciating pain for the rest of her life.

But, lying in that body cast for those months while her body healed, Kahlo began to make her mark on the world. Using an easel made special by her father, she started painting.

What makes Frida's work so universal and memorable is  the pain that comes off of the canvas. Her paintings are catharsis.

Lydia was quick to point out that the Benitez sister's story is a painful one as well. They are both widows, they know the pain of loss. They have both raised their children as single parents and are not strangers to hard times.

Chef Alfonso Avila prepares a bomba, one of the restaurant's specialties

Lydia worked for twenty years at different restaurants in Chicago and Marlene still works two jobs to support her kids. 

So, when they decided to open a restaurant it was only natural to dedicate it to Frida. Frida had her painting and food. The Benitez sisters have food and Frida's paintings.

A place like "La Cocina de Frida" is not as common as it should be. Family ventures, driven by people with a real love for serving fresh and personal food, are dwarfed by eateries that lack character.

If you subscribe to Anthony Bourdain's idea of a perfect meal being not just the food, but also the environment and the people you share it with then spending some time with the Benitez sister's at "La Cocina de Frida" will be well worth your while.

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