Frontera Grill (and Topolobampo)
445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60610
LAX 2 ORD, no.3
“Other side,” was the driver’s stern command when I attempted to get out of the cab. I shut the door, and the two of us waxed on, waxed off, the broken, cracked vinyl of the cab in unison with our denim butts to get out on the “safe” side. I’m from L.A. I don’t take cabs. I didn’t know you’re supposed to get out on a certain side. We were a few minutes early for dinner.
"Topolobampo" and "Frontera Grill" printed matter-of-factly in simple black block-lettering on the awning out front gives you no warning to what’s about to assault you once you step inside.
The place is...loud. Not only orally and aurally loud in volume, but visually loud. Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago is about 817 decibels of fully chaotic-on-purpose technicolor. Colorful sculptures, framed pictures, and masks cover the walls. From behind the artwork, sections of the painted walls shout for attention in canary yellow, trimmed with every vibrant color in the Roy G. Biv, and ceilings that extend mysteriously upward into darkness screech back in the form of flying turquoise and fuschia creatures that hurl you back to where the wild things are. It sort of feels like a box of crayons exploded into Nickelodeon shrapnel all over an Acapulco cantina.
We slipped in and out and sideways between groups of animated people to sidle up to the bar. Funny, as colorful as the setting is, I’ve never seen so many black leather jackets. We sat down. The bar is bright. Lined with glossy tiles, it’s a brilliant frame for an impressive panoply of bottled weaponry that’s about to launch alcoholic warfare on any sober vibes that might have slipped past the hostess. Rocks, no salt, please. Thanks.
Waiting for my first margarita, I had a familiar sense that I had been here before. Hmm. Deja-vu? A blip in the matrix? No, I really have been to Frontera Grill before. It was the last time I was in Chicago. I met a certain him-whom-shall-remain-nameless. We had three months of wicked delicious. We parted for opposite coasts, promising to keep in touch, but I don’t even remember his name now. Okay, that last sentence is wholly untrue, but it sounds way sophisticated! We actually maintained a silly cross-country fling for a few months following, and on his visits to LA, we would go to Border Grill in Santa Monica, probably because it reminded us of Frontera. Border Grill owned by the Too Hot Tamales and Frontera Grill owned by Rick Bayless, the two restaurants are totally unrelated, but they look and feel like fraternal twins. Both are vibrantly multi-colored cantinas, but whereas Frontera Grill is brighter and more playful, Border Grill is a little darker, sexier, and mysterious.
Returning from that momentary lapse into my romantic history, I noticed that the margarita that I was now holding was rather...small. (Not connected, I swear.) Thankfully, the margaritas don’t come in those hateful beluga whale-mouthed glassses that spew ice-blended fruit and tequila (why someone would do that tequila is beyond me) every time someone bumps into you. However, Frontera goes in the opposite direction with glasses that are the size of a grapefruit juice glass on a room service tray. The glass was small enough to make me take notice, but the tonic inside was big enough to make me take even more notice. Strong. Dangerous. I ordered another.
When friends showed up, we had another round (are you counting? I’m up to three) before going to our table in the Frontera Grill dining room. The colorful playground cantina decor of the bar spills over into the dining room, just slightly less hyperactive. Topolobampo, I think, was just on the other side of the wall through a dark doorway. No sooner were we about to open our menus, when a server came by with chips and two tiny silver bowls of salsa, and asked us about drinks. Margaritas? Damn, I love Mexican restaurants. Pace – I had just had three margaritas in small glasses that tricked me into shooting them like tequila, and that was on top of my happy hour citron/sodas at PJ Clarke’s – yourself. I took a raincheck for the margarita, for at least ten minutes, but ordered guacamole without even looking at the menu. An L.A. friend who had heard we were going to be here recommended we order it without a doubt.
Frontera’s menu is well-organized into categories with un-obnoxious names. There are offerings from the seafood bar, small plates, specialties that are “fancier” Mexican dishes, other entrees that are the more typical Mexican fare, and sides. There, under the specialties, I saw it - huitlacoche. Huitlacoche. As in huitlacoche, black rotting mold that spawns on corn, a.k.a. Mexican delicacy. It grosses me out to see corn mold (Frontera calls it a “mushroom”) on the menu, but nonetheless, I was impressed with Rick Bayless having the cajones to put Mexican corn mold on his menu. LOL!
The waiter returned with the guacamole and martini-style margaritas for friends. These are a little more expensive because you get to mini-marvel as they are shaken and poured at the table, but they taste exactly like the regular margaritas. I ordered another, rocks, no salt, before we launched back into full-scale menu deliberations. Yes, dining delicious means heavy duty discussion, analysis, negotiation and compromises when it comes to ordering. On a few margaritas, it’s even better, though I couldn’t get anyone to commit to ostiones. Especially with habanero mignonette? Whatever happened to liquid courage? Pollos.
The chips and salsa on the table were good – just golden yellow triangles, more crisp than crunch, with two salsas that didn’t quite shoot flames down my throat. The chips and guacamole, however, were outstanding. Out. Stan. Ding. Outstanding. The guacamole was incredible. I don’t know why. I don’t know what it was about Frontera’s guacamole that made the avocado taste so much smoother and creamier, yet chunkier, more like an avocado than an avocado and yes, if food can taste like a color, a brighter, more verdant green in my mouth than I have tasted before. I know some people prescribe to the all-green guacamole, eschewing tomatoes as mere “filler,” but the tiny red gems in Frontera’s guacamole were awesome, though I am wholly embarassed to admit that I am not quite sure that they were tomatoes. On three and half margaritas, I could have sworn they were sun-dried tomatoes or maybe even roasted red peppers. I don’t think I’ll ever really find out until I go back because even Rick’s guacamole mix (oh, I have an opinion on guacamole mix, but not for today) and his online recipes aren’t very telling.
When I – rather, “we” – finished the guacamole, I wanted to order another one, but the final results of our menu deliberations had arrived. Our lively-almost-raucous conversation about working from home, Chicago nightlife, and Chicago late-nightlife died down to hushed ohs and ahs. Even on the plate, Frontera Grill goes wild with color.
Sopa de papa is a creamy potato soup, not too thick and heavy, but the perfect consistency to bouy sweet roasted carrots and still-bright spinach. There are a couple of ceviches offered in the seafood bar section of the menu, but Trio Trio Trio lets you taste three, served up in martini glass. Seaside Cocktail, a mix of shrimp and halibut dressed in a cocktail sauce with a twist of lime was good, but hardly worthy of a sophisticated martini glass. Ceviche Fronterizo, all halibut, was more interesting, but too heavy on the cilantro for my taste, even after picking off the cilantro garnish on top. The winner for taste was Ceviche Yucateco, which had some heat that made me blush, but nowhere near fiery enough that I had to beg for half-and-half with tears in my eyes. I ate the shrimp, but left the calamari for someone else.
Callos de Hacha en Salsa de Elote Verde was beautifully presented on the plate. Large scallops looked like they had just dragged themselves exhausted up out of a cilantro-chile swamp, pudgy little playmates tumbling all over each other, now leaning exhausted up against a muted green pyramid of rice, weeping the sauce into a puddle around them. The scallops were tender and very surprisingly spicy. Red usually flags fire, but on the scallops, in the sauce, and on the rice, green chiles made us suck in our breath a little too cool down.
I didn’t taste the Pollo en Adobo, but I suspect that the thick chicken breast lounging against a bright orange pillow of pumpkin puree in a veritable sea of deep dark red adobo sauce didn’t suck. Like everything else, the plate was colorful, with a final afro garnish of onions on top.
Everything was delicious. The guacamole outstanding. But far and away the best dish of the evening was, not the slender, sexy martini glass triplets of ceviche, not the spicy, playfully sophisticated scallops, not the dark, earthy yet complex adobo. The best dish of the evening was a simple plate of tacos al pastor. Plain, simple tortillas-filled-with-something. Tacos. But they weren’t just plain and simple. Pork had been marinated in chile and spices and then grilled al pastor style (I have to do more research on what al pastor is – but whatever it means, al pastor means f-in’ tasty). The meat was deeply flavorful and so tender that it was hard to believe that it wasn’t a piece of fat that had been braised for hours in its own fatty juices. Accompaniments to the tacos al pastor only added to the ever-increasing *mmm*ing rush that was taking over – salsa, more of that gucamole, tortillas that smelled and tasted like masa heaven, and frijoles charros that, I swear, have spoiled any true delicious happiness in future relationships with black beans. Nothing will even come close to being this good. I've lived in LA for how many years? And I find Mexican food that makes me wilt...in Chicago.
I didn’t think we had it in us to do it after all that, but we did. We ordered dessert. Purposely, we picked nothing overly luxurious, creative, or unique. Purposely we picked one for all of us to share with each our own spoon. The simple crisp was something that did not compete with all the incredible food we had just had for our gastronomic attentions. I took one tiny little bite for enough of a taste to say that it wan’t bad. We didn’t finish it.
Though we had hushed our conversation when the food had arrived, it had gradually picked up throughout the course of the meal until we realized that we had drawn out margaritas, guacamole, dinner, and dessert over several hours. Likely one of the last groups lingering there in the dining room, we quickly paid our check to the Frontera staff now anxiously waiting to clean up.
We stepped out onto Clark, ready to attack Chicago nightlife. I leaned toward the street, turning my head right to look for a cab.
Silly. We’re walking.
Elsewhere on the web about Frontera Grill:
~ Rick Bayless's Chunky Guacamole Recipe at Dallas News
~ Food and Wine Magazine loves Duck Breast in Apricot Chile Mole
~ wow. a full five stars (*****) for Frontera Grill at Citysearch
~ uh oh, only 3 out of 5 stars from MetroMix Chicago, but a rec for the Saturday brunch
~ 208 Yelpers give Frontera Grill 4 out of 5 stars
~ Frontera Grill is worth the two margarita wait for Fodor's
~ for Frommers, Frontera Grill is the place to taste real Mexican food (in Chicago, I guess?)
~ some of Rick Bayless's recipes on FoodNetwork.com
** This post originally published 11.09.05 **