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On the back of the menu at Frida is a little montage about the Mexican artist for whom the restaurant is named. It explains that Frida Kahlo's paintings, which "reflected on ... her poor health ... miscarriages and numerous operations" were "often characterised by their brutal portrayals of pain". Call me a philistine, but it's not what you want to read about when you're having your tea, is it?
In a token effort to create a Mexican ambience, a sombrero hangs off one chair at each table, a mute challenge to get so trolleyed on margaritas that you won't care that you look like a dork, and the waitresses, all very pleasant, are got up in fancy-dress costumes Mexicans would call "folklorico". But the long room, formerly half of the now-adjoining Portofino, looks like the restaurant in a cookie-cutter American chain of business hotels.
We sat outside because the gas heaters made it warmer than inside, but it was also so dark that we couldn't read the menu without the aid of cellphone torches, including one fetched, with no apparent embarrassment, by the hostess.
In this city there is much more bad Mexican than good. Too many dishes contain the same ingredients tweaked only by the style of the transport mechanism (flour tortilla or corn taco, rolled or folded) and the garnish.
So it was at Frida. From the top half of the menu we sampled some excellent starters: chunky guacamole and decently punchy salsa roja came with housemade corn chips that tasted fine but, shaped like short stiff strands of pappardelle, were unequal to the task of digging the goodies out of the stone mortars that both, inexplicably, were served in. A ceviche made with prawns was fussy in presentation and hard to share but its bright freshness practically sang.
It was in the main dishes that things fell apart. I suppose I should have told the Professor that "vegetarian fajitas" is a contradiction in terms - it was like the start of a meal rather than a dish - but a burrito and a quesadilla were both stodgy as hell (the former mostly rice, the latter thin and ungenerous) and a chicken thigh cooked long before was not improved by being swamped in the canned passata and capsicum, which seemed to be part of most meals.
It was a classic display of the characterlessness that makes almost all Mexican food in this country worth avoiding. And it took the bunuelos, little deep-fried pancakes like the Spanish tortas de aceite, to add a sweet note to the end of the meal.
That Frida is under the same ownership as Portofino may be all the well-informed diner needs to know, but it's not as bad as that information would suggest. Indeed, in simply reducing the floor space available to that Italian joint, it has improved dining out in Auckland. But to say that it makes a great contribution to Mexican food here would be an exaggeration. And it is far from cheap.
Entrees $10-$15; mains $24-$30; desserts $11-$15.
Verdict: Lacklustre, often fussy and far from cheap Mexican.