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No Coast, No Problem

No Coast, No Problem

Kevin J. Elliott

Okay, I’m hooked.

It wasn’t until I finally tried the “gumbo,” that I was entirely convinced about Frank’s—the new seafood carryout opposite the long-standing Frank’s Seafood Market.

Of course, those on the far west side, might know that Frank’s has occupied that industrial space in Hilliard for over 15 years, Columbus being one of the first way stations after fresh fish hits the coast. For the last year though, couple Wil and Kim Mendez have occupied Frank’s vacant kitchen and converted it into coveted destination for bold flavors, traditional favorites and secret family recipes.

“It’s really true that you can never judge a book by its cover,” says Wil Mendez, handing me a piping hot bowl of his award-winning gumbo. “I’ve had people from New York, Boston, Maine, and even New Orleans, where they make the best gumbo in the world, try this stuff and claim it’s by far their favorite.”

Indeed, Mendez’s ritual for making the gumbo, like most of the dishes at Frank’s, is an intense labor of love, consisting of a half-day simmer to fuse the spices in the original recipe, and a dash of Mendez’s “Latin touch,” combining extra garlic and cilantro, to give it its distinctive taste. While Mendez’s gumbo humblebrag might throw some off, with two decades in the kitchen, going from line cook to chef, he’s earned the accolades. And that’s just the appetizer.

Tucked off of Trabue Road, among the warehouse sprawl, Frank’s is an unassuming oasis. There are no frills. With plastic cutlery, styrofoam dishes, smooth jazz and a roll of paper towels on each table, it becomes easy to feel like the place is one of those seaside bastions you only return to on Florida vacations. All that’s missing is the beach.

“We’ve got the breeze, all we really need are some seagulls and a little sand over there,” says Mendez. “In fact, we’ve actually been thinking of finding a way to pipe in some bird noise.”

As one would expect, the menu is no frills as well, including fried oysters and shrimp, salmon cakes (another award winner) and a crispy calamari salad. It’s dominated with the freshest fried or grilled cod, perch, walleye, and catfish—available as a platter—and a whole fried red snapper that is a sight to behold.

But as simple as the menu at a seafood shack can be, again, it’s the “love” passed down through the Mendez recipes, from the egg wash to the remoulade the cocktail sauce to the fry mix that makes Frank’s take on seafood unique and out of the ordinary.

Who knew that maduros and tostones, the family’s delicious variations on fried green plantains, would pair so well with the scratch clam chowder?

Or that homemade flan is an ideal complement to a gluttonous boil of crawfish and crab legs?

On this particular Saturday, “Grumpy’s” (Wil’s nickname) Boil was the main attraction, as we got the last one. Like most days, they run out. There was a steady stream of regular customers which made it hard for the husband and wife team, the only staff of the day, to break away for a chat.

As we rub our satisfied bellies and remove our lobster-adorned bibs, Kim delivers an enormous slice of orange cream wedding cake. It’s the same cake the Mendez’s had at their wedding over a decade ago.

“It’s the only thing we don’t make here,” says Kim. “We get it shipped in every week from back home in New Jersey.”

It’s also a  perfect symbol for the old adage that, even though we are sitting on a gull-less patio in Hilliard, we are ultimately guests in the Mendez’s home.

The next weekend they were preparing for their first Taste of Latin event, featuring a whole roasted pig and a bounty of ceviches. Business is good, something the modest and appreciative Mendez attributes to two tenets; customer service and quality.

“Back to the gumbo … each and every time you come here,  I want it to taste exactly the same. I want you to know this is my gumbo or my chowder.”

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