Frida's Natasha Kwan

Natasha Kwan is chef-owner of Frida's in University City.

There isn’t another restaurant like Frida’s in the St. Louis area – or maybe even in the Midwest. Since debuting the University City restaurant almost six years ago, chef-owner Natasha Kwan has stayed true to her goal of serving food made largely without oil, butter or sugar. Many of Kwan’s dishes are either raw, vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, nut-free or a combination of these, as well. For Kwan, who has eaten a mostly vegetarian diet for more than 30 years – at times eating a fully vegan or raw foods diet – it was also important to share the vibrancy, heartiness and versatility of meat-free cooking.

Hewing to these standards has never inhibited Kwan’s creativity in the kitchen, nor her ability to prepare decadent burgers and sandwiches, loaded pizzas and a range of Mexican-inspired items including tacos, burritos and enchiladas. Even salads are robust, like the Mediterranean, with romaine, organic spinach, sundried tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, red onion, tomatoes, red pepper, Feta, housemade hummus and sprouted sunflower seeds in a creamy lemon dressing.

One of Kwan’s most famous signature dishes is the award-winning Frida Burger, a housemade quarter-pound burger topped with tomato and tahini-chipotle slaw on a local bun. When Kwan introduced her version of the Impossible Burger to Frida’s earlier this year, she was curious to see how it would stack up to the house favorite.

“The customers who love the Frida Burger and have tried the Impossible Burger have gone back to our signature burger,” Kwan says. “I think it’s because our burger isn’t oily, it’s not cooked in oil; it’s more vegetable-based. Our Frida’s regular is still sticking with ours, but the Impossible Burger is bringing a whole new clientele. We’ve seen a huge upswing in business because of it.”

To complement the Impossible Burger’s different flavor and texture, Kwan tops it with organic arugula, grilled onions, white Cheddar, tomato and Buffalo mustard on a local bun. She says she personally prefers it in smaller quantities on pizza. Frida’s also offers four other burgers – American Freedom, California-Mushroom-Swiss, Black Bean-Cheddar and the spicy XXX – and whichever you order, don’t skip out on a side of baked Skinny Fries.

“We’re a burger and fry joint when you boil it down; that’s what we sell. And I never, ever thought that Frida’s would be that,” Kwan says with a laugh. “We try to even make your traditional comfort food a little healthier.”

Kwan’s most recent project at Frida’s was developing a Sunday brunch menu featuring dishes such as buckwheat pancakes, enchilada casserole, sesame-peanut noodle salad and Cheddar biscuits and chorizo gravy. “It took me 19 tries to get my vegan biscuit recipe right for the menu, so we call it Biscuit No. 19,” Kwan laughs. Brunch service officially started on Sun., April 8 and runs every Sunday from 10am to 2pm.

We recently caught up with Kwan to learn more about the new brunch menu, what inspires her R&D at Frida’s and the potential for her to launch a new concept in the St. Louis area in the future.

What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? I’m going to say jalapeño; I love jalapeño. I’m a jalapeño girl! There’s so much you can do with it. You can use jalapeño in a dessert, pickled jalapeños in nachos, do stuff with the [pickling] brine, which is super fun. Roast them, blacken them, take the seeds out, keep the seeds in, make it into a salad, make it into a drink. Put it in anything, pretty much. One of my employees gave me a shirt, and it says, “Put a jalapeño on it!” She had it made for me, because I’m always like, ‘How can I incorporate jalapeño?” [Laughs.] I’m known for my jalapeño soup, and we used to have a pineapple-jalapeño Mojito on the menu. It was phenomenal. And I pick up on jalapeño in so many things that I eat. I think it’s one of the best, most versatile peppers, and it’s such a pretty pepper.

What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? My perfect day… Oh, goodness. I’d go out to brunch at Herbie’s; we’ll say this is a Sunday. Go to Herbie’s, sit out on the patio, have a few mimosas – their staff is great. And then… God, I’m going to sound like a drunk! [Laughs.] I’d sober up and then bike out to Chandler Hill [Winery in Defiance, Missouri], which is a great bike ride. I’m a huge cyclist – not much outdoor anymore after opening up a restaurant, and two [cycling] studios – but on my perfect day off, I’d bike to Chandler Hill and have a good time on the patio. Then I’d bike back, and for dinner I’d probably hit up my old standby: House of Wong. I’m a big fan; they modify everything for me. I get a half-order of the vegetable delight with no carrots, extra ginger, extra garlic, extra vegetables and add tofu, not fried. I have my own pot stickers there because I have a carrot allergy… They’re the best family ever. The husband, Mr. We, is from Cambodia, and his wife is from Korea. They’re both refugees here in the U.S. and they’re such great people. I have such respect for what they do and what they’ve gone through. And their [food is] MSG free!

How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? The food scene has definitely become more diverse and a little more vegetable-forward, which I’m really excited to see. But while it’s become more vegetable-forward, it has become more meat-forward as well, with more pork fat and drippings and things like that on menus. I think there are some healthier options out there, which is good to see, too. It’s definitely evolving.

Who are St. Louis chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? I admire any restaurant owner who can stay in this damn business. [Laughs.] And I’m not kidding – this is the hardest industry to work in. I have respect for anyone who can do this day in and day out, because it’s hard. You’re on your feet 16 hours a day, you don’t see your family, you rarely get to sit down and have a decent meal. Half the time I’m eating over a trash can in a hurry. I have respect for every person who does this. You go to Restaurant Depot, and you’ll see how exhausted the people are. We’re in it because we’re all crazy, but we all have passion. And that passion allows us to maintain the integrity of our products on a daily basis and to do service once, twice, maybe even three times a day.

What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? Again, more vegetable-forward. In nicer restaurants that have heavier fare, in meat-centric restaurants, have something light. This has pissed me off for decades. Say you’re on a date in a nice, meat-centric restaurant – everything has meat on it, including every salad. Where is the light meal for a woman, or a guy – it can be for a guy! It doesn’t matter. Where is that light meal? You have to have some balance. That’s what I’d like to see.

What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? I don’t have a day off! What day off? [Laughs.] If my husband and I were to cook, we’d do a light pasta – sometimes gluten-free, like a quinoa pasta – with pistachios, some shallots, chervil, garlic and Villa Manodori, a white balsamic designed by Michelin-starred chef [Massimo Bottura]. I don’t have a lot of time to cook, and pasta is so easy, so that would be my go-to.

What’s your favorite comfort food? The refried beans at Mi Ranchito or bagels. I’m always down for a really, really good bagel. Is that comfort food? I like just a bagel, freshly baked, with nothing on it – if it’s a good bagel, it doesn’t need anything. My second restaurant job was a baker. I get mine from Companion because they’re vegan, but I like The Bagel Factory bagels, too. It’s a treat for me. I’m a bagel snob. You want a crunchy outside and soft inside. When I was a baker, we boiled bagels and then I stood in front of a 600-degree oven and made bagels all day long. I loved it.

If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Take the time to really understand seasonings and when to use them. Often times, if you fill your pantry with the staples – onion, garlic, cumin, paprika, smoked paprika, cardamom – you can develop so many flavors. Moroccan, Cajun, Pakistani, Afghani. So don’t be afraid of spending money on spices, because little changes to a spice blend can change everything. I’ve always wanted to make an info-graphic on how to do this. I have an Excel spreadsheet built on it, but I really want an info-graphic to give to people to make it easy. Look at spices from cuisines around the world, because a lot of people don’t know. Just pick an area or country and research what spices are common there. And keep your spices in a drawer; don’t let light in!

What’s your first food memory? I was surrounded by food as a kid. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in Potosi, Missouri. I was raised by my grandparents – my father was a doctor, so he was there, but he worked all the time – and my grandmother cooked every single meal for the family. We have chickens, we had two herds of cattle, we slaughtered our pigs and chicken – it’s no wonder I’m mostly vegetarian now. (I eat shrimp sometimes, but not often anymore.) But every day, meal after meal, watching my grandmother cook. And sometimes attempting to help. Getting chickens out of the coop. Surrounded by food. And I grew up on 100 percent Chinese food, so when I started tasting American food, I didn’t like it. That was in kindergarten.  

What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? Could it be a line of dishes? I just put together a brunch menu… It wasn’t so much the menu, though, but that I was down a person. [Laughs.] Hm. I don’t think it’s that exciting, but intriguing in terms of the response I got… it was on our buffet. I did a dairy-free Mexican lasagna. I made it like a regular lasagna but seasoned it differently. It was spicy – it had jalapeños [Laughs] – and everyone was like, ‘I’ve never had a Mexican lasagna!’ It was good. It had lots of veggies, spinach, peppers. Super comforting. It was an interesting entrée, I think, and it was good to hear people say that they had never had anything like it before.

What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? A lot of the inspiration is what I’m craving. I don’t follow recipes or look at cookbooks. I look at things online; I’ll Google search, say, “Pakistani street food,” and I’ll just look at photos. And then at spices. And then maybe combine some of those Pakistani spices with shallots. I do a lot of fusion, because I don’t believe you have to play by the rules – and you absolutely don’t. I’m constantly looking and talking about food; my husband is probably sick of it. We’re on this chapati kick right now, so I’m thinking of what I can do with it. Maybe a chapati quesadilla. I talk through the creative process and just put my own stamp on it.

What are your future plans? We’ve been actively looking for a space for over two years. We want the perfect location for a new concept. A similar concept, but it wouldn’t be Frida’s. We’ve looked at a few locations, but they’re either too big or way too expensive. That concept might end up being a food truck if we can’t get the location in the next six or nine months. Also possibly other markets, but we’d like to have a second restaurant here before we go into another market.

Frida’s, 622 North and South Road, University City, Missouri, 314.727.6500, eatatfridas.com