Rick Bayless is a world-renown chef who has taken Mexican food to a gourmet level. His two Chicago restaurants - Frontera Grill and the adjoining Topolobampo - have been favorites of food critics for years. Bayless further cemented his rock-star status by winning the Bravo TV network's "Top Chef Master" title earlier this year. And because of that, both of his restaurants are doing tremendous business. While Topolobampo takes dinner reservations, Bayless reserves tables at Frontera Grill on a "first-come, first-serve" basis. On a Saturday night, Frontera Grill's waiting list can run up to 3 hours or more. Most people would say, "Screw it!", and go to Plan B. But Cindy and I have eaten at Frontera Grill before and when we went there recently during our trip to Chicago, we happily waited over three hours to have some of Bayless' sensational food.
Frontera Grill specializes in regional Mexican cuisine, something that Bayless studied long before he and his wife, Deann, opened their restaurant in 1987. Bayless' reputation grew over the years and his little (65 seat) restaurant on N. Clark St. (see map) attracted visitors from all over to sample his ever changing menu. Each year, Bayless closes down Frontera Grill and "Topolo" and takes his staff to a different region in Mexico to study and taste the different types of food that are offered there locally.
Bayless is also a marketing machine. He is host of the television program, now in its 7th season, "Mexico - One Plate at a Time". He has authored five cookbooks - three of which we own. He has his own line of food products - Frontera Foods. Plus, he is the head of the Frontera Foundation, a non-profit organization that benefits small organic farms in and around the Chicagoland area. Through all of this, there are many nights you'll see Bayless in the kitchen helping out his two chefs, Richard James (Frontera Grill) and Brian Enyart (Topolobampo).
We had a long day in Chicago, walking around the city, taking in the Shedd Aquarium, and just taking it easy. Cindy wanted to take some time to go over to Nordstrom and do some shopping. She stayed a little longer than I anticipated. I wanted to get over to Frontera Grill around 6 p.m., but she didn't get back from Nordstrom until about 6:15. She needed to tidy up a bit and by the time we were ready to take the short walk from our hotel to Frontera Grill, it was about 6:45.
The place was predictably packed as we walked up. The hostess told us it would be a 3 to 3.5 hour wait for dinner. Cindy asked me, "Do you have a Plan B?" Nope - Frontera Grill was my only option that evening. As I said, we ate there once before about seven years ago on Cindy's birthday. Oh, my God, was the food excellent. We sat in the bar during that visit for a couple hours and we drank Blue Agave tequila like we were rock stars. I honestly can't remember what I had that evening, but Cindy had a flank steak that had been marinating in lime juice and chiles for a couple days before being grilled. The taste sensation was just unbelievable. Once again, Cindy got the better of the two meals we ordered. That's not saying mine was bad. It's just that the chile-lime flank steak eclipsed my memory of exactly what I had.
We put our name in and proceeded to the bar area. Well, it was unbelievably packed. While the bar's capacity says it can hold 30 people, there were, quite possibly, three times the amount of people packed in the bar area. There was no way I could get to the bar to get a drink. Cindy said, "Why don't we go over to Harry Caray's, get a drink, watch some baseball, then come back in a couple hours. It should be cleared out by then and we can still wait for a table to open up."
Capital idea, my wife. We walked about four blocks over to Haray Caray's and sat at the bar and had a few beers while watching baseball and pre-season NFL football. Although we were tempted to just say, "Screw it!", and eat at Harry's, we both realized we were bound and determined to eat at Frontera Grill.
We decided to head back to Frontera Grill around 9:00 p.m. Cindy checked in at the hostess stand while I went back to the bar to get a margarita. The bar was still packed, although not as bad as it was before. I was able to get a Blue Agave margarita and found Cindy standing in a corner. She said, "It's still about a 60 to 75 minute wait."
Cindy is one of those people who grew up having dinner at 5:00 p.m. She still wants to have dinner at 6:00 p.m. most evenings. Me, on the other hand, grew up in a family that if we ate at 7:00 p.m., well, that was early. During my bachelor years, I routinely would eat at 8 p.m. or later. I still haven't been able to kick that habit. (I usually eat after 8 p.m. while I'm on the road - the restaurants are usually not as busy at that time.) Having dinner at 10:00 p.m. was usually grounds for divorce with Cindy. But she knew how good the food was at Frontera Grill and she was willing to wait it out.
And wait we did. I was drinking Blue Agave margaritas 3 to 1 to hers. And at 10 bucks a crack, the bar tab added up very quickly. When we were finally called for our table around 10:20, I was gassed. But it was a fun kind of gassed. That was until they led us out to our table which was situated outside on the sidewalk under a canopy.
The whole weekend we were in Chicago, the high temperature had trouble making it into the low 60's. Saturday night, a stiff breeze out of the north had developed and it was shooting right down through Clark St. Cindy had a light jacket and capri pants, I had on a polo shirt and shorts. I normally don't get cold, but I'm guessing the combination of no food and a lot tequila was making the cool wind seem a little more cold than usual.
Since it was late and we were hungry, we had pretty much already looked at the menu when we were waiting in the bar. Our waitress came out and we ordered up right away. Cindy got the Creekstone natural black angus rib steak marinated in spicy red chiles, then wood-grilled. It came with black beans, sweet plantains with sour cream and a side of fresh guacamole.
I went with the wood-grilled Maple Creek pork loin that was served in a sauce of roasted tomatillos, fresh corn, chile guero (yellow chiles) and hoja santa (a Mexican sweet herb). Rustic mashed potatoes and grilled summer squash came with the pork loin. We hoped it wouldn't take very long.
As time went by, I continued to get colder by the minute. It wasn't a pleasant experience. Although we were close to the building and under the awning, we started to feel some mist falling on us from the wind that was whipping through the outdoor seating area. Any other time, eating outside would have been the best way to go. But it was getting too cold.
Cindy got up to go to the bathroom and it wasn't long after she left that a gentleman from the restaurant came out and said, "Is it getting cold out here?"
I said, "Yeah, it's getting a little nippy."
He said, "Come on inside. I've got a table for you in there."
It turned out that when Cindy went inside to the bathroom, she happened to pass the hostess stand. She casually asked if there were any tables that had opened up inside as it was beginning to rain and the wind was gusting pretty well at that time. Wordlessly, the man standing next to the hostess quickly left. Cindy didn't know that he immediately walked out to grab me and bring me inside to the festive and colorful dining room. It turned out the dapper-dressed man was Rick Bayless' managing partner, Carlos Alfarez.
I sat down at a small table in the dining room, now about half-full of people, and they caught Cindy before she went outside and directed her to the table. It wasn't much longer before our food showed up. As the waitress was serving our food, Carlos Alfarez came over and asked, "Is this a little better than being outside?"
Cindy laughed and said, "Much!"
We didn't have to be prompted to dig in. My pork loin was just excellent. There are so many different taste sensations in the tomatillo sauce that it's just so tough to describe. The pork loin was tender and had a great wood-grilled taste to it. I don't eat potatoes all that much, but the mashed potatoes were very good and the summer squash was equally as good.
Cindy's rib steak was just outstanding. As much as I liked my pork loin, once again Cindy got the better of the two meals we had. The spicy red chile marinade was a great complement to the wood-grilled taste to the meat. Although I think its safe to say that it wasn't as good as the chile-lime marinated flank steak she had on our first visit, it was still a very good steak.
We hungrily devoured our meals, completely satiated, tired, and - in my case - pretty drunk. Our bar tab was close to $90 bucks, while our food came to around $45. A nice tip for the bartender and the waitress brought our overall bill for a night at Frontera to about $165 bucks. And that's not including the beers and drinks we had while we were over at Harry Caray's.
Bayless just opened a new restaurant - XOCO - a low-key counter to the Topolobampo and Frontera Grill restaurants just to its south. XOCO (pronounced SHOW-co, and means "little sister" in Aztec) features a limited menu, akin to what one would find with street vendors in Mexico. Long lines have been reported during the lunch and dinner hours as there is only counter service and no waiters or waitresses to wait on tables. So far, XOCO has been a roaring success in its first five weeks of existence.
Word to the wise about Frontera Grill - get there early, especially on the weekends. They were turning people away before 9 p.m. because the wait was so long. But as Rick Bayless' star continues to rise in the "foodie" galaxy, it's always going to be tough to get into. But it's damn well worth the wait if you go.