By Chelsea Hohn | Photos by Susan Ayer
A flurry of trays bursts through a tiny door into the dining area of Frita Batidos, the Cuban-inspired restaurant created by Eve Aronoff. Everything is white — the painted brick walls, the picnic tables, the floors — but the room is vibrant. It’s a Wednesday night, and every single picnic table is full of guests. Pops of color come from the food and drinks around the room and mesh bags filled with limes used as accents for each table. Music fills the rare holes in conversation, and a shuffle of college students, families, and tourists add to a line that is quickly approaching the back of the restaurant.
The staff at Frita Batidos moves full speed ahead to manage the flow, all while maintaining a steady hand and calm demeanor. This is what happens when a restaurant is managed with the precision and specification of chef and owner Eve Aronoff. She has carefully fostered this environment of “artful chaos” since opening the restaurant in 2010.
And things haven’t slowed down. The traffic has steadily grown since Frita Batidos opened its doors, and the staff (some of which who have been there since the first year) have adapted, never compromising the quality of the service or food. Not surprisingly, Frita Batidos has become an Ann Arbor staple.
The restaurant was largely inspired by Aronoff’s love of Cuban culture and passion for taking care of people — a philosophy that was instilled in her as a young child. It was also about creating something special and personal, and cultivating not just a sense of community, but a genuine community that starts with the restaurant staff and extends to the guests. Attentiveness to detail is equally important to Aronoff, whether it’s making sure her ingredients are top quality and locally sourced or maintaining Frita Batidos’ characteristic spirit and playful atmosphere by bringing in elements of Cuba.
Aronoff fell in love with Cuban culture after spending time in Miami and wandering through the many food markets there. Continuing to follow her curiosity, she read more and more about the country’s culture and history. She stumbled upon the “frita” and the “batido” separately, but the “frita,” which was described as a burger made with chorizo and shoestring fries, seemed like a most delicious fit with the “batido,” a blended shake-like beverage.
“Those two together sounded amazing to me,” said Aronoff, “and I thought, Frita Batido…. Frita Batidos!” she laughed, pointing out that it isn’t even grammatically correct. The name stuck, though, and her mind had already been made up — before she had even tried either dish.
It wasn’t until a month before Frita Batidos was set to open in 2010 that Aronoff tried fritas for the first time when she traveled to Miami to conduct taste testing. “I went with my mom and we ate eight fritas that day,” she said. But they were much different from what she was expecting. Traditionally, the frita is served on a grocery store hamburger bun (a far cry from the homemade brioche that she serves at her restaurant), and is topped with potato sticks and American cheese. The whole burger was much saltier than she imagined it would be. “I thought, I’m really glad I didn’t try this years ago because I probably wouldn’t have pursued this,” she said with a laugh.
But Frita Batidos isn’t a traditional Cuban restaurant, and it isn’t shy about that. The menu is really more about Aronoff’s impression of the culture and how it has influenced her personal style of cooking in imaginative ways.
The spirit of Cuban culture made the biggest impression on Aronoff, and she’s brought that into the space of Frita Batidos through small and playful details. The communal tables, for example, encourage conversation between guests and often spark conversations among strangers. Guests can also play a game of dominoes, the national game of Cuba and an activity commonly played across parks in Miami.
The ordering window at Frita Batidos is also an attribute that was inspired by Cuban culture, where guests customarily order through an open window at restaurants. For Aronoff, this was a must-have feature for Frita Batidos. She admitted that in Michigan the window doesn’t get as much use as she would like it to, but it’s these type of details that have become the defining elements of Frita Batidos’ charm.
When creating the restaurant, Aronoff also thought back to one of her first jobs — working as a hotdog vendor at Fenway Park in Boston. The convivial nature of that job was quite different from what she experienced while receiving formal training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She finally realized with Frita Batidos that she could bring all of these things together. “The spirit of the hotdog car, the attention to detail, the passion I have about food and taking care of people, the way I was brought up — bringing those together to create their own thing — that’s Frita Batidos.”
Another practice she took to the restaurant’s kitchen was something she learned in childhood. Aronoff grew up with a mother who loved to cook, and in a way that often resulted in Aronoff trying more food than she ended up eating. At Frita Batidos, any dish being made has to be tasted by at least two other people than the person who’s making it — again, creating an inclusive environment even in the back of the house. She also caught on to her mother’s caring spirit, after seeing the joy she would get from taking care of her children. Aronoff recalled that if she and her siblings all wanted four different dinners, her mother would make four different dinners. If all of them finished and were still hungry, another dinner would be on the way. If she was sick, her mother would call and ask what she wanted — “Richie Rich comic books and tomato soup,” she laughed. Her mother’s care ended up being the biggest culinary influence for Aronoff.
Running a successful restaurant is difficult enough, but for one that values customer service, food quality, culture, and sustainability in the way that Frita Batidos does, challenges must be met with a certain amount of creativity.
“We know what our values are. We see how close we can come to that without [ignoring] the practical concerns we have as a restaurant, and just keep trying to work to get closer and closer to meeting those values,” Aronoff explained. Their values are hardly compromised, which only adds to the number of struggles that come with having high standards. In addition to sourcing locally for ingredients, all of their utensils are from Green Safe Products in Detroit, added the kitchen manager, PJ Johnson.
Sourcing locally means supporting local agriculture, but small farmers have to sell produce at a higher price point, resulting in a higher price for menu items. “You have to find a way for guests to appreciate that and understand why this might be a little more expensive but still be a great value for all the different kinds of taste,” said Aronoff.
Even space can be a challenge; the Frita Batidos kitchen is tiny, and there is only one door. “Everything comes in the front door and out the front door,” Aronoff laughed. They have added onto the kitchen since opening, and the workflow has become much smoother, and they continue to fine tune the processes as they go along. This is part of what Aronoff thinks makes a good chef and what’s necessary to run a successful restaurant. Being open to critiques and using them to create positive change is part of the daily life at Frita Batidos, from listening to customer feedback to having weekly staff meetings that build community within the restaurant.
“Is there any way we can make it a little bit brighter in here?” a woman sitting at one of the many tables inside of Frita Batidos asks one of the servers. He politely says yes, and within a few minutes the lights slightly brighten. The woman goes back to the group she’s with and continues to eat.
Cultivating a community in a small space takes more than just sandwiches and the right décor — it takes dedication to creating that atmosphere and making it the foundation around which everything else is built. Aronoff and her team make a point to build a staff that shares similar values — people who are passionate and view paying attention to details as rewarding rather than burdensome, and people who generally enjoy taking care of others. Frita Batidos successfully bridges the gap between high quality food and an informal setting, while managing to support local agriculture and uphold an environment where guests feel comfortable asking one another to pass the salt. It is no wonder the line frequently extends towards the back of the restaurant.
“This is where I take people when they come in from out of town,” one man says as he devours a plate of fries. Meanwhile, another guest walks in.
Frita Batidos is located at 117 W. Washington Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. You can view the menu on their website at www.fritabatidos.com.