It doesn’t take you long to figure out that a meal at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago is going to be different from your local taqueria.
The moment you drive up you are met by the valet and then instantly you find yourself inside a different type of Mexican food experience. The music, the artwork, the vibe and the host staff in suits, ties and formal dresses all combine to tell you this is going to be a special evening.
When I was there recently, it was as if people were at a concert and waiting for the main act to come on. You saw it in their faces as moved from the bar into the dining room. Smiles, joy, laughter and a sense of anticipation for the meal they were about to share.
We had a party of eight, and had made reservations for 5:30, a half hour after the evening seating hours began. I should say that we made our reservations weeks ago as this is not the type of place you decide to visit on a whim.
Being in one of the early groups to get a table, I was able to watch as the smaller than expected room quickly filled. Within minutes, the noise had risen to a level that almost obscured the “One Plate at a Time” inspired background. Everywhere I looked, people were engaging in conversation just as I’m sure Bayless’ hoped they would. This was not a place for a quiet reflective evening meal. Think busy, noisy, joyful and community, sort of like the neighborhood restaurant in Mexico City or Guadalajara that goes upscale.
Our servers arrived quickly with menus and to take our drink orders. On my recommendation, most of my friends decided to try the Oaxacan Gold Margarita. Using Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal from my friend Alberto Morales’ palenque in San Dionesio, Oaxaca, this pineapple/vanilla drink is a clear winner. Mezcal pairs wonderfully with the pineapple and the touch of vanilla provides a unique twist on this classic cocktail.
When our drinks arrived they were accompanied by the chips, salsas and guacamole we ordered. The green salsa is a wonderful roasted tomatillo and the red, a morita chile based offering had just the right amount of kick to get your attention but not overwhelm your palette. The guacamole, served on a banana leaf was smooth with just the right amount of chunkiness.
With a mix of generations around the table, it was interesting to see the expressions of people as our main courses arrived. For folks accustomed to seeing plates full of beans running into the stereotypical tomato based rice, this was completely different.
One of the people with me asked if I thought the food was authentic. That’s hard to say because what is authentic to one person, may not be to another. I prefer to experience Mexican food under what I call Chef Iliana de la Vega’s rule of El Naranjo in Austin. Who can say what authentic is, because that can be hard to define, depending on who you are. It’s better, Chef Iliana would say, to strive for traditional tastes and flavors of Mexico, and in this, Frontera Grill delivered.
One of the plates we shared came with a trio of moles; poblano, coloradito and verde. Each of these evoked their home regions of Puebla and Oaxaca, Mexico, the verde being my clear favorite. This is just not a mole you will find much in America and the taste for me was a wonderful reminder of Oaxaca where I spend significant portions of my year.
I also sampled the carne asada and the beef was some of the most tender I have ever had. Cooked to perfection and served mixed with caramelized onions, one bite takes you to some of the best taco stands in Mexico City. Add in the smoky beans and this plate is a stand out.
For the non meat eaters in your group, get the corn torta or the tamal. Both were delicious but the tamal really stood out. Smooth and bursting with corn flavor, the fresh cream brought this traditional Mexican offering alive. In the US, a tamal, or as many know them here, a tamale, conjures up an image of a reddish masa loaded with shredded beef, pork or chicken. These were 100% corn, sweet, light and melt in your mouth smooth.
As our group devoured everything from the Old School Platter that included ceviche to a wonderful tortilla soup literally poured steaming hot into your bowl at the table, it was now time to choose a dessert.
I went for the Duo de Flanes, a sampling of two different types of flan, the traditional and a wonderful coconut rum infused creation. With a perfect texture, I hated to take the last bite. The Piloncillo Layer Cake, served with a nice cranberry compote, was perfectly reflective of the dense type of cake we find across Mexico. Perhaps the star of dessert time was the Chocolate Pecan Pie. Served with Kahlua whipped cream, this decadent dessert was so rich it was almost impossible to finish.
If there was a negative, it was the service between our meal and the arrival of dessert. It took awhile for our Cafe de Olla to arrive and when it did, it was only warm. Then we were left to wonder what was going on with our desserts. We all sat there wondering if something had gone wrong as until that point, the service had been spectacular. Finally dessert arrived and all was forgiven.
Sitting through the meal, I listened to my guests. I kept hearing how they had never had a meal like this. This is Mexican inspired cuisine where the food is known by it’s proper name, as opposed to a number, as in a Number 3 Combination plate.
It is also food that brings together flavors that many in the US may have never tried or experienced. That attention to detail and desire to be true to the flavors of Mexico is why Chef Rick Bayless takes his staff annually with him to tour that great country.
You can’t truly understand the traditional flavors unless you have had the privilege of sampling them in their native kitchens. This type of approach, however, is not cheap and the cost of bringing top quality Mexican flavors to America is reflected in the prices at Frontera Grill.
Clearly Chicago is in love with Rick Bayless and his circle of restaurants that also include Topolobompo and XOCO, and my experience there tells me why. Living in Las Vegas however, we are seeing upscale Mexican restaurants like this regularly close up shop. A recent article even asked if places like Frontera Grill have a future in a city like Las Vegas.
Thankfully, residents and visitors to Chicago don’t have to worry about that. Frontera Grill gave us a great meal, full of the flavors I have come to know and love in my travels throughout My Mexico.
Frontera Grill, 445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654
Dinner for 2, $100.00, drinks included