From Frida to Rico: Jorge Fierro changes his upscale Salt Lake City bistro to reconnect with the beans and tortillas that made him famous

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rico Cocina y Tequila Bar restaurant owner Jorge Fierro.

Salt Lake City’s Frida Bistro, which opened in 2009, has always been a dining anomaly, serving “elevated Mexican food” that was more refined than the more familiar south-of-the-border fare.

Colorful and rebellious, however, doesn’t always translate with customers, nor does it create a successful bottom line, says owner Jorge Fierro, who has changed the name and concept of the restaurant at 545 W. 700 South.

Rico Cocina y Tequila Bar debuted this week — just in time for Cinco de Mayo. It has a different menu, with more moderate pricing and a clear connection to the well-known Rico brand of products that Fierro launched two decades ago at the Downtown Salt Lake City Farmers Market.

“We’re going more basic with the Mexican cuisine that we are known for,” Fierro explained this week as workers finished the new sign in front of the eatery near Salt Lake’s up-and-coming Granary District.

“Like any business owner, I need to give customers what they want,” he said. “It just makes a lot of sense to do it under the Rico name.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rico Cocina y Tequila Bar's al pastor tacos with pork, grilled pineapple, grilled onion, cilantro and salsa.

The restaurant’s colorful interior and open kitchen remain the same, but the menu at Rico Cocina now has tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tamales, quesadillas and flautas. All include the handmade tortillas, beans, guacamole and salsas produced in the Rico commercial warehouse behind the restaurant.

The streamlined menu is the same for lunch and dinner, with prices that range from $12 to $17. The restaurant is open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.

There are still glimpses of Frida, as the menu has about a dozen of the bistro favorites, including the tiger shrimp in chipotle cream sauce (camarones Diego) and the slow-cooked pork ribs with cactus strips (costilla de puerco).

There also are a few new items, including the wrapped chicken in roasted peanut mole (pollo rebasado). It was a special a few months ago that was so good, Fierro wanted to include it on the permanent menu.

Recent changes in Utah’s liquor laws mean employees no longer have to pour drinks behind a “Zion Curtain” — in Frida’s case, a tiny room in the back, no bigger than a broom closet.

Cocktails now will be poured at a new copper bar that features more than four dozen tequilas and other spirits. (The bar meets a new state requirement allowing for liquor to be poured at least 10 feet from dining tables, said Fierro.)

When sitting at the bar, customers will still need to order food, but Rico Cocina has a new affordable “botanas” or small-plates menu. It features eight items, from chips and salsa to queso fundido (cheese fondue) and blue corn dusted calamari to an al pastor quesadilla. All are $6-$7.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ella Fierro, 5, rides her scooter past a large sign of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Her father, Jorge Fierro recently changed the name and menu of his restaurant, Frida Bistro, to better reflect the Rico brand that he started more than 20 years ago.

Rico history • By now, many Utahns have heard Fierro’s story. He immigrated to the U.S. from Chihuahua, Mexico, initially landing in Rawlings, Wyo., where he worked as a sheepherder.

Eventually, he got a factory job in Utah. When Fierro, then 37, couldn’t find any decent refried beans in the grocery store, his entrepreneurial spirit — something he got from his businessman father — kicked in.

He took his mother’s recipe for fresh-cooked “de la olla” pinto beans and began selling them at Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park.

That was 1997. Since then, Rico — which means delicious in Spanish — has expanded to include corn, flour and whole-wheat tortillas; several varieties of tamales and burritos; rice; and salsas and guacamole. The products are sold at 75 grocery stores in the Intermountain region.

Production started in a small building at 800 South and 500 East, where the Bagel Project is now. But soon Fierro needed more space and he leased the current warehouse on 700 South.

When customers suggested Fierro open a restaurant in the front of the building, Frida Bistro — named for the famed Mexican artist and activist Frida Kahlo — was born.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new Rico Cocina y Tequila Bar.

New beginnings • Fierro said that many times in the past eight years, customers at the farmers market or at catered events have asked: “Do you have a restaurant?” When he would tell them about Frida or they came to dine, they couldn’t see the connection between the casual Rico products and the upscale restaurant.

Then, a few years ago, two events — the departure of his full-time chef and a hefty government fine for hiring unlawful employees — left Fierro near bankruptcy.

“Do I close it? Do I sell it? Do I find a partner?” he said of the thoughts that ran through his mind daily.

A friend and mentor gave him some classic business advice, he said. “He motivated me to focus on the Rico brand.”

Beans and tortillas helped Fierro in the past; there’s no reason they can’t sustain him in the future.