Monday, September 26, 2011

Frontera Grill - Rick Bayless Amazingness

In my final recap of my recent Chicago trip, I think I saved the best for last.  After going to Chicago with Nick last year, one of the only things that he wanted to do was go to Xoco (the walk-up/fast food restaurant) for lunch.  However, once we got there the place was closed and Nick was somewhat devastated to say the least!  Not only was it closed, it was closed for two weeks while Rick Bayless took his entire staff to Mexico to learn about local food, so we could not go back.

So, when we were headed back to Chicago this summer, I called about 4 months in advance to make reservations at Frontera Grill.  Frontera is the family style restaurant of the Rick Bayless Chicago complex, and on a Saturday night you can wait up to three hours for a table!  They generally only take a few reservations an evening, and lucky for us our reservations were all set, so we were sat straight away. To begin, our server brought over a bowl of spiced mixed nuts, a flavorful bite getting us ready for the rest of the evening.

Spiced Nuts
When we were looking over the menu, it was difficult to make a decision on what to order because everything sounded delicious.  Lucky for us, our server seemed to know just about everything on the menu (I mean they go to Mexico to learn!) so we felt we were in good hands.  
Having heard so many great things about the margaritas, I knew I had to begin with the house Topolo Margarita, which had Sauza Conmemorativo tequila, Torres orange liqueur and housemade limonada.  This may be hands-down the best margarita I have ever had.  There were so many flavors working together and none of that taste that makes your face contort all funny.

Topolo Margarita
Nick went with the Summer Margarita, which was similar to the Topolo Margarita but had muddled cucumber and was complimented by a cilantro salted rim.  I would have never thought to do that, but Nick said it tasted amazing.

Because we wanted to taste everything, for an appetizer five of us decided to split the combination platter that came with cheesey quesadillas, chicken taquitos with creme, ceviche tostada, jicama salad and guacamole.  I loved the quesadilla because rather than being a folded over tortilla with melted cheese, this actually was more like a turnover and completely sealed, but then it was fried so that it was totally crispy on the outside.  The jicama salad and ceviche were tasty and fresh and a nice contrast to the rest of the dish.  The guacamole was delicious of course - we probably should have gotten a regular sized order.  Overall this was a great sampler, but I wish we had gone for the more interesting items on the appetizer list because there were plenty.

Appetizer platter
Others in our group decided on the more creative route and got the Sopes Rancheros, which were crispy corn masa boats with savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado and homemade fresh cheese.  This appetizer had a great flavor combination.

Another ordered the Frontera salad, which had shooting star little gem lettuce, spicy pumpkinseed-lime dressing, "quick-pickled" tomatillos and wood grilled knob onions.

Frontera Salad
By the time the appetizers were done, I had sucked down my first margarita and was looking for something different this time around.  Looking to my server for suggestions, I finally settled on the Mezcal Margarita, which had Del Maguey Single Village artisanal mescal, 10-year-old Torres brandy, Peychaud bitters and limonada.

Another at our table was right with me and got the El Mural with muddled orange, lime and grapefruit, Fidencio "sin humo" Oaxacan mezcal, organic simple syrup, and savory sal de gusano.

Both of these drinks were totally amazing and unlike anything I have ever had or even seen offered at other restaurants.  Adding the best tequila and totally fresh ingredients makes for a completely unexpected drinking experience.   

For meals we went all out.  First up was the Pato en Chichilo, which was slow-grilled gunthorp duck breast, classic Oaxacan chichilo (dark savory mole scented with avocado leaves, almonds and herbs), which then had red chile corn fritters, grilled local patty pan squash, spicy guero chile escabeche.  The mole was so amazing and tasty - totally unlike any other mole I have had before.

Pato en Chichilo
Other orders included a sliced beef dish that was tender and flavorful.

Poc Chuc de Puerco - sour orange-marinated, grill-seared Gunthorp pork, Yucatecan garnished (grill-roasted onions, sliced heirloom tomatoes, tangy Napa cabbage, avocado) Habanero salsa and black bean "soup"
Many of the ingredients used in the meals are from local farms and fresh caught fish.  Even crazier is the fact that on the rooftop of the Rick Bayless complex is a little veggie farm with all sorts of tomatoes and other delicious bits.

Pescado a la Veraniega, which is wood grilled swordfish (that day's special) with the daily salsa, Achiote rice and wild arugula salad
One of the sides we had to order once we saw it pass our table was the Elote Asado, which was an ear of grilled corn topped off with queso fresco and chile powder.  This dish was beyond amazing and is an absolute must order for anyone who visits Frontera!

Grilled Corn
Camarones en Mole Chabacano, which is Chamoy-glazed fresh Florida shrimp, savory apricot mole, red chile rice, grilled green beans and pickcled pasilla chiles
The plantains were flavorful and had a wonderful texture that made us actually attempt to order another order, but thank goodness our waiter waited to see whether we really wanted them because we were so full.

Platanos con Crema - Sweet Fried plantains with homemade sour cream and fresh cream
Finally, my dish was the Saturday special: the Costillas Enchipotladas, which were chipotle-glazed Maple Creek Farm pork ribs.  These ribs were mouth-wateringly delicious!  The ribs were perfectly cooked and so well seasoned.  I gave away a few but I totally licked my plate clean.  I really could not get enough - if I go back I will have to make it a Saturday so I can order this again.  YUM!

The Saturday Special
Unfortunately no one had any room for dessert, but we really did not need it - the appetizers and the main course were more than enough tasty food, and my friends literally had to roll me out of the restaurant.  The appetizers were good, but really paled in comparison to the entrees.  Going back I would get more sides with the entrees and opt for dessert (I need to try them!).

The meal offered up so many flavor combinations that were so authentic tasting.  It really comes across that Rick Bayless and his staff put significant time and effort into studying food from Mexico, giving us Americans a real taste for authentic Mexican.  If you are headed to Chicago, make plans to go to one of these amazing places.  Xoco will take care of the craving (the bride and groom at the wedding we attended think Xoco is one of the best restaurants in the city), Frontera is an amazing restaurant experience, and from what I read Topolobampo is 4-star dining.  Really, you cannot go wrong with any of these choices.  If you want to go to Frontera you generally have to take your chances walking in (unless you call really far in advance), but be prepared to wait for the food.  If you are willing to spend, you can make Open Table reservations at Topolobampo.

Regardless, you HAVE to have a taste!

Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon


  1. cilantro salted rim is so inventive. everything looks amazing! I have a wedding to attend in Chicago next august - my friends and I are already planning reservations for Alinea. but i totally want to go here too!

  2. I don't know when I will, but whenever I get to Chicago, I'll be checking out this place!

  3. The muddle cucumber and cilantro rim sound like elements of the perfect cocktail!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...