Los Angeles: Fashion, Not Function at Frida Tacos on Melrose
It's a tough spot for any casual restaurant, tucked between the trendy Melrose fashion houses to the west and one of the city's most beloved restaurants, Osteria Mozza, to the east. To exist, you need a dash of the flair and style from down the street and a whole heap of culinary acumen. Frida Tacos on Melrose has all of the first, but not much of the second.
The idea of the casual taco spot on this upscale stretch of town seems like an easy walk down a forgiving runway. Anything even hinting at authentic Mexican food should thrive here, with heavy foot traffic and a burgeoning single-family neighborhood just behind the main drag. Keep vampire hours on the weekends to catch the bar crowd, and before you know it this little bright red taqueria should be pressing money as fast as their tortillas.
Unfortunately, any restaurant not named Hard Rock Café relies on a simpler business model: make delicious food. As an offshoot of the dinner-centric Frida Restaurant in Beverly Hills, all of the "ingredients" are there. Except, well, the actual ingredients at Frida Tacos.
Like many mid-level Mexican joints trying to broaden their appeal, the carne asada is the only taco filling really dressed for success. Large, juicy, beefy chunks are given plenty of sear and left with juice to spare. The beef isn't pounded as flat here as you'd find elsewhere, offering up a heftier, steak-like chew in admittedly big portions for the $2.25 price point. The rest of the options are more fashion than function.
Why true al pastor has been relegated to a poor man's game is anyone's guess, when so many shawarma places exist in strip malls all over town. As a result, the slow-braised pork is little more than a sloppy pile of salt, with little discernible texture.
The chicken mole has soft, often-succulent piles of pulled pollo, but the sweetness of the thin mole is ultimately off-putting. The carnitas carries a beige hue and matching flavor that's only saved on both accounts by a vibrant salsa bar, particularly the vinegar'd onions and thin ribbons of habanero. And if you were looking for cochinita pibil with any sense of tasty tenderness, you'd do better to head a mile south to Tinga, where the heat from their fiery version can be felt all the way up to Melrose.
Assuming Frida Tacos continues to strut out its mediocre flavors to passersby and locals alike, it will be due to proximity and little else. Burger places abound here, alongside innumerable yogurt huts and watering holes that might slide out some fries now and again. The reality is, you'll likely have to hop in the car for any other Mexican options within reasonable proximity. And you probably should.