I love Mexican food. I admire Rick Bayless. And I live in Chicago, minutes away from Bayless’ much-lauded Frontera Grill (as well as the fine-dining Topolobampo and street-food Xoco). One would think that I would have taken advantage of those three variables coming together. But no.
With Frontera’s no-reservations policy — and typical two-hour wait — Drew and I had somehow never found the right night to do it. Then, a few months ago, my mom read about a Chicago Botanic Garden event that involved a tour of Bayless’ home garden in Bucktown (conveniently within walking distance of our place) and a meal at Frontera. Awesome? Yes. Expensive? Oh yes. My parents wanted to get me two tickets for my birthday, which was last week, but I suggested that instead, the four of us — me, Drew, my mom and my dad – go there for dinner together for my birthday.
We got there on Saturday around 4:15 p.m. (Frontera opens at 5 p.m.), and Drew graciously offered to wait in line for us while we got a beer around the corner at Hub 51. When we returned, he had already put his name in and gotten us a 5:20 p.m. seating time. It worked out perfectly — one drink at the bar, and we were seated.
Since this meal was four years in the making, we didn’t hold back.
Obviously, we had to order the guacamole and house-made tortilla chips, which were excellent. And, since my dad is somewhat of a tortilla-soup aficionado, we had to get a bowl to share. It was hard to directly compare it to other tortilla soups because it was much more brothy than the thick, cheesy versions we’re used to, but it was absolutely delicious, with deep, layered flavors and big chunks of chicken and avocado.
Drew and I first tried Mexican-style corn when we were living in New York, and we’ve loved it ever since. (Speaking of, if you’re ever in NYC, tiny Cafe Habana in Noho is worth the wait.) Frontera has two styles of Mexican corn, and we tried the one with sour cream, anejo cheese and chile. I don’t know if I liked it quite as much as the version with mayo, cojita cheese and lime that I’m used to, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. I think the picture speaks for itself.
For the main course, the Saturday special: chipotle-glazed ribs with black beans and “tangy cabbage” that was more like giardinere. Every bite packed a punch.
Oh, and for the other main course, the Big Wood-grilled Tacos al Carbon Trio. The pork was our favorite.
Even though we were stuffed, and we’re not really dessert people to begin with, the savory-sounding blueberry bread pudding with sour-orange ice cream was too hard to resist. We ordered one with four forks.
The bread pudding was indeed buttery, and the crumble provided the perfect contrasting texture. But the best part was the tangy ice cream, which must have been made with sour cream. Since none of us love sweet foods, it was the perfect dessert — and, surprisingly, perhaps the highlight of the night. The biggest endorsement came from my mom, who doesn’t often gush over food. She said it may have been the best dessert she had ever had.
As much as I would have loved to see Bayless’ amazing garden, I think it was a good call skipping the tour.