It may be too soon to expect Like Water for Chocolate delights such as quail in rose petal sauce to define the Mexican dining experience, but at least those nightmare combination plates with refried beans aren’t the only thing around anymore. In fact, a restaurant named after Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is actually offering fusion cuisine with a Mexican accent. Combining the ingredients and/or cooking methods of two or more countries has been fashionable for a few years, but Mexican has rarely been part of the equation. Chef Gulmaro Florez, formerly at Davis Street Fishmarket in Evanston, has set out to change all that, wedding his native sauces to foods from other cultures and altering his cooking methods to produce lighter, more healthful renditions of classics. Those ubiquitous tamales, flautas, quesadillas, and empanadas are available only as appetizers.

Even then they’re not the same old same old. The best, the quesadillas ($2.50), are filled with fresh grilled mushrooms, dry, salty queso anejo (“old cheese”) from Cotija, and epazote, a pungent, distinctively flavored herb/weed that gives them a blue cheese tang. Empanadas ($3.50), those traditional Oaxacan turnovers, are plump with a ricottalike requeson cheese and covered with a tomato sauce so long on oregano it’s positively Italian. Stay away from the flautas ($3.50), with their pedestrian puree of potato and white cheddar cheese, but make a beeline for the addictive salsa. It gets its distinctive deep color and smoky flavor from dark mulato and jalapeno chilis that have been charred, chopped, and then added, skin and all.

Cilantro is a major theme at Frida’s. Nopales Tenochtitlan, ($2.75), a salad composed of strips of firm prickly-pear cactus stems, onions, and Cotija cheese in a light vinegar and oil dressing, tastes pleasantly like pickled cilantro. Cilantro is the diva in the delicately flavored, pale green cream sauce that accompanies the tender, grilled pork tenderloin ($8.50) served with black beans, tortillas, and crisp chef’s vegetables in an oregano-spiked, olive-oil-based sauce. It even makes an appearance, along with garlic and lime, in a Mexican-style hummus ($3) with flour tortillas that lacks only a little more olive oil.

Whole red snapper ($7.95), customarily cooked Veracruz style with olives and tomatoes, is instead placed under a salamander a grill until it has a perfect crust and served in a fragrant oregano lemon sauce, garnished with green olives, and accompanied by tomato rice and chef’s vegetables. Roasted chicken ($8.95) is coated with Frida’s luscious brown adobo barbecue sauce, composed of dried mulato and pasilla chilis, brown sugar, and very little tomato. It comes with a choice of black beans or cilantro, rice and vegetables.

Margaritas and American and imported beers are the predinner beverages of choice, although inexpensive wines from Chile, Spain, and California are also available. Afterward go for the good, strong, freshly ground, premium gourmet coffee ($1.25), espresso ($2.25), and cappuccino ($2.50), decaf or regular, or Mexican hot chocolate blended with almond and vanilla ($2.50).

Dessert is limited to queso Napolitano ($2.75). Although it doesn’t sound like it, this means flan. If you’re fond of flan, you’ll probably like this one. Called “queso” because of its firm, cheesecakelike texture, it contains only the usual custard ingredients–eggs, sugar, and milk, but no cheese. If you prefer something a little more exciting (say, cake, pie, or pastry–none of which is available here), your only recourse is to complain, as our table did, while you’re eating the flan and the free hard candies and become bitter when the one that looked like butterscotch turns out to be a cough drop.

There are certain incongruous touches like black lacquered chairs and industrial, carpet, but mostly managing partner Sandra Dranias has filled the place with Fridiana. Up front is artist Michael Vincenzo Acerra’s mural of Frida and friends. Entitled The Green Heart, it portrays her with her muralist husband Diego Rivera and other artists, musicians, intellectuals, friends, and animals–including Leon Trotsky (with whom Frida had a fling), her dog, her doctor’s cat, a monkey (symbolizing sexuality), and local poetry slam capo Mark Smith. The heart, an image Kahlo often used in her paintings, shows up in the form of a green lantern. Photographs by Hillary I. Issacs-Rafson are on the other walls. Work by other local artists will be displayed in months to come.

Additional Mexican accents include an eye-catching, larger-than-life-size papier-mache skeleton, a replica of the one the dying Kahlo had placed over her bed. (During Day of the Dead festivities these papier-mache figures are wrapped in fireworks and exploded as a way of blowing away troubles.) The skeleton, schlepped from Mexico by manager Araceli Acevedo’s mother, is so big it had to be cut into three parts to get on the plane.

Frida’s, 2143 N. Damen, serves dinner from 5 to 10 Sunday through Thursday, 5 to midnight Friday and Saturday. Its open for lunch from noon to 3 Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Parking is available one block south. For more information call 337-4327.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Alexander Newberry.