The colors hit you first.
From the outside, with its deep blue storefront and vibrant window dressing, the Frida Katrina Mexican Folk Art & Café door swings open to the bright hues of Mexico City. Turquoise, pink, lime green, yellow – all come together like a burst of hothouse flowers. Then the smell hits you; earthy aromas of beans simmering, with rich pepper wafting just beneath the surface.
Walking past rows of tiny to ginormous katrinas (or catrinas in Mexico) – the smiling skull dolls honoring the Day of the Dead, T-shirts bearing the bushy brows of Frida Kahlo and her stout husband Diego Rivera, Mexican wrestling – lucha libre – kid’s masks, backpacks, and brightly painted wooden animals, there is a doorway that continues the flow of brightness into a pocket-sized eatery.
“In Mexico, there are these little cafés called fondas,” explained owner Leticia Vasquez-Smith. “You find food from family recipes and the menu goes day by day.”
The food at Frida Katrina highlights Central and Southern Mexican regional cooking, featuring distinctive moles and tons of vegetables. The cuisine is also corn-based, which makes the majority of offerings naturally gluten-free. The infant Vasquez-Smith slept in a bassinet on the floor of her mother’s restaurant, soaking in the kitchen rhythms, and grew up to continue the tradition with a catering company here in Columbus, Azteca Southern Mexican Cuisine, that found its brick-and-mortar footing here in Clintonville.
“Growing up in Mexico City, I saw my mom cooking and my grandmother cooking,” she recalled, her Frida earrings bouncing. “It was my chore to take my grandmother to the market – there were all these flavors and she would talk to all the people. I hated it. It took so loooong…but now I do it!”
Vasquez-Smith’s father was a tour guide and passed on a love for history and culture to his young daughter. “My father would meet these people from all over the world and bring them home!” she laughed. “It was amazing for me to hear all these languages.”
Coming to Columbus to attend Ohio State, Vaquez-Smith ended up staying in the chilly city. After working in hotels and the export business, she found herself out of a job during the economic downturn. “I thought, ‘I can’t stay home and do nothing, I have to share something’…Food and art are the two things that move me in life.”
To gather and refine recipes, Vasquez-Smith returned to Mexico for research, harvesting ideas like a bouquet of aromatics. Some have roots that stretch back to pre-Columbian times.
“Corn is so important to us – we have so many different kinds, and cuitlacoche [a fungus that grows on corn and is considered a delicacy in Mexico]”, she said. “In Mayan and Aztec lore, we were made out of corn…it’s amazing.” Here in the United States we only have a few types, she added sadly.
A former dancer, Vasquez-Smith’s hands move through the air as she speaks about her passions. “The recipes are part of oral tradition and they vary from family to family. I talked to the people – I don’t know why I really love my culture so much! It’s not an obsession, more like I’m always learning.”
This love comes across in her cuisine and her support of indigenous artists from both Mexico and Columbus. “I care for what I bring here – I choose my own fruits and vegetables, I have contracts with local farmers,” she said. “I get so tired sometimes making the tamales, but it is therapy for me. I am so happy to cook and share with people.”
Part of Vasquez-Smith’s mission is to educate patrons about the true cuisine of her home country. “I overhear people saying Mexican food is greasy – that’s because everything here is Tex-Mex or Taco Bell, that’s the worst horrible thing. It’s so sad when you know Mexican food.”
“I never knew about the chimichanga, I mean, what is that? I had a friend who called me ‘Chimichanga’ because it was such a joke. So I am showing people the real Mexico – lots of vegetables, little frying, and very healthy.”
Sitting at the green table, perched on a pink bench, Vasquez-Smith looks around her dream. “In Mexico, eating with the family is very important. You share your day, problems, things good and bad. I grew up that way, and now I am sharing it.”
Frida Katrina Mexican Folk Art & Café is located at 3339 N High St. and is open for lunch and dinner, and brunch on the weekends. Keep up with the specials by liking its Facebook page. For more information, call (614) 284-2491.