Frida's Natasha Kwan

Natasha Kwan owns Frida's and Diego's Cantina y Ciocina. 

Frida’s in University City, Missouri, is the culmination of a 20-year dream. When chef-owner Natasha Kwan opened the restaurant in July 2012, its vegetarian, vegan and raw food options were extraordinary considering its size at the time. Kwan has since expanded the restaurant’s space, but she maintains the same standards: good food you can eat every day.

Frida’s menu has also evolved over the years. For example, Kwan – who calls herself the anti-sugar chef – originally refused to use potatoes in her cooking because of their high glycemic index; now she goes through more than 100 pounds a week. “Eventually every chef and/or restaurateur listens to what the customer wants – you have to, otherwise you’re not going to be as successful as you could be,” she says. A wider variety of plant-based options have established themselves on the regular menu, as well – a shift that Kwan chalks up to the general public’s heightened curiosity of plant-based, whole-food eating.

Currently, Kwan is working on opening a new Mexican concept, Diego’s Cantina y Cocina, next door to Frida’s. A departure from Frida’s cuisine but born from the same spirit, Diego’s promises to be your new favorite neighborhood hangout, offering everything from escabeche to mezcal cocktails.

What does Frida’s bring to the St. Louis restaurant scene today? We’re still one of the few restaurants that dial in to soy-free, gluten-free and oil-free. We have way more oil-free options than almost any place in St. Louis or the country. I’ve been to Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas – these big markets – and you can barely find anything oil-free. [At Frida’s], the majority of our dressings have no oil; we don’t cook our vegetables in oil. You don’t have to not eat oil, it’s just my preference – and 100 percent of Frida’s menu is what I like to eat. The weekly features, especially, are what I’m craving that day.

Tell us about your forthcoming concept, Diego’s. We’ve been working on it since October 2018. The building is almost 100 years old, so you do one thing, like tear a wall out, and you find all kinds of stuff you didn’t anticipate. Then, of course, we have to put everything to code, but eventually everything will be new. Culturally, there will be a similarity [between Diego’s and Frida’s]. When you walk into Frida’s, our employees are very cheerful – there’s no pretense. It’s important to my husband and me that everyone feels comfortable. This is our home; you’re coming to our house and we’re grateful that you’re here. [Diego’s] is a totally different restaurant [though]. It’s a bar that holds more than 150 people. It’s all Mexican cuisine – not Tex-Mex; it’s Mexican. It’s not vegetarian; it’s not vegan. But I, as a chef, cook a certain way, so will it be a place where you can enjoy an authentic Mexican meal that’s more vegetable-forward? Absolutely.

Where did the inspiration for Mexican cuisine come from? It’s always been there. If you look through the past seven and a half years that Frida’s has been open, we’ve had so much Mexican-inspired food on the menu: We’ve had tortas, elote, you name it – granted, people were iffy about the torta. [Laughs.] My husband is from a border town in Texas, in the Brownsville area across the border from Matamoros, Mexico, and he grew up on authentic Mexican cuisine. And I’m just obsessed with [it]. We live in the neighborhood – we’re four blocks away – and we want to make [Diego’s] what the neighborhood needs. What better cuisine than Mexican to celebrate community, hanging out, having a good time and being boisterous or just relaxing?

Frida’s, 622 North and South Road, University City, Missouri, eatatfridas.com

Diego’s Cantina y Cocina, 630 North and South Road, University City, Missouri, diegosstl.com