I ride my bike to the windy city's hidden gems, lost goldmines, new kids on the block, and old standbys then tell you what to think and what to order. Check, czech, Česká it out...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Oh You Fancy, Huh? Part 3, Rick's Café

There is a smorgasbord of great restaurant/chef combinations in the Chicagoland area but few rival the success, the hype and the longevity of Rick Bayless and...

When Bayless opened it in 1987, Frontera was a revelation; before it, there simply wasn't a big time restaurant (or big time chef) whose sole focus was to showcase Mexico's culinary nuances and traditional recipes. Frontera Grill (and its fancy sister Topolobampo) has since brought Slick Rick (one of my many nicknames for him) much fame and praise: he's won nine James Beard Awards (aka Food Grammys), hosts his own PBS cooking show, won Top Chef Masters, and has written a heap of best selling cook books. Yeah, he's doing pretty well.

Well, guess what.
I don't give a shit.
Last time I checked, Bayless and his "authentic" Mexican food haven't passed my test. So, Ricky, I'll see your 3 successful restaurants, army of loyal followers, and flawless goatee and raise you one low-budget blog review. GAME ON!

Me and my Mexican-born dining companion (future Master of Dietetic Science, Cristain Alejandro Mendoza) sauntered up to Frontera at high noon on a Friday and threw down the gauntlet (oh, you best believe I brought the Foodlosophy Scale of Excellence out for this one).

Small Plates
--Coctel de Atun--
why isn't this glass bigger?!
Sashimi-grade yellowtail Ahi, mango-grapefruit salsa and tomatillo guacamole were mixed together to make this marvel of freshness. I hate to cave into hyperbole but everything from the rich avocado, to the tangy grapefruit and tomatillo, to the steaky/freshness of the yellow tail were a picture of flavor balance. I could eat this every day for the rest of my life. Round 1 to you, Rickster. I give this a HEFAP1.

--Tamal de Elote--
Two sweet corn tamales steamed in banana leaves, topped with homemade crema, queso fresco and wood grilled poblano peppers was lighter than the ingredients would suggest and sweeter than I thought it would be. A strong dish, but probably the weakest of the day. I give this small plate a grade of SACCASI2.

No pictures necessary here as this guac looks like almost any other guac. But it separates with itself with its perfect consistency (not too chunky, not too smooth), lack of overbearing limey-citrus flavor (lime is meant to keep guacamole from turning brown, not drown out other flavors), and balance of creamy and salty flavors. I give it a grade of AOBAG3.

--Cebollitas Asadas--

Mr. Mendoza gets credit for ordering both sides, including this one. Normally I wouldn't go near something like this; it's just lime seasoned grilled green onions. But I found them refreshing, delicious, and perfect in their simplicity. Definitely a HGAG4.

--Verduras en Escabeche--

When this was put on the table I said it looked like giardiniera. Essentially that's what it is. Pickled jalapeños, cauliflower, carrots and onions. That's all there is to it. But that's all it needs to be. Its spicy-vinegariness makes it an excellent palate cleanser in the same vein as sushi's pickled ginger. This side earned a grade of ADCFTC5.

Main Dishes
--Pato en Clemole Castellano--

Everyone and their mamma knows I'm a sucker for duck. It's chicken's more flavorful, moister, more amphibious counterpart and it should have it's own public holiday (oh wait). This dish celebrates duck to the Nth degree through precise cooking and a expertly blended flavors. The Gunthorp Farms breast meat is smoky, slightly gamey and has a low intensity heat (thanks to the chili rub) that lingers in the mouth like out-of-town businessmen linger in an airport T.G.I. Friday's. But Frontera didn't stop there, they kicked it up a notch by placing the perfectly cooked breast meat on top of a bread pudding-like sweet-iroquois-corn torta that is anchored in a sea of spicy-rich clemole. I could write a sonnet about this dish, but I forgot how and don't care to look it up, that's why I have this blog. Oh, there were also green beans. I give this dish a grade of HIJOLE6.

--Mixiote de Borrego--

Check out the picture if you want to know what a mixiote is, it's that neat little parchment paper package on the plate. But, just like new acquaintances and Tootsie Pops, it's what's inside that counts. In this case, it's a Gunthorp Farms lamb shoulder that's slow cooked with ancho-pasilla sauce and giant butter beans (aka lima beans). The result is a super tender, smoky, sweet and dark concoction that you wish there was more of. Ricky Ricardo and his team could've left it at that but instead they added a bushel of fresh frisee and watercress that bring some much appreciated astringency to the party and effectively balance out the whole freaking thing. This plate is only available on Fridays, so plan accordingly. I give this dish a grade of USFAGTPS!7.

--Sopa de Frutas--

Sopa is Spanish for soup. Frutas is Spanish for fruit. De is Spanish for Awesome (that's my best guess). So this dish's name roughly translates to "awesome fruit soup" and I couldn't agree more. The hibiscus sorbet sits contently in a cold lemongrass broth dotted with cilantro. They float tangerine and Meyer lemon gelatinas around in the liquid for good measure. The result is a tangy, effervescent and refreshing dessert that makes you feel less guilty about the pound of rich-spicy food you just inhaled. The sweet treat gets a grade of BAMF8.

Marisol, I like it... a lot.
-Blue Agave Margarita: It's just three things: Cazadores Blanco, Cointreau and lime juice. That's all you need. It's sour, a touch toasty, lean, citrusy-boozy, and possesses a distinct lack of sweetness that I really admire.
-Mezcal Margarita: I was feeling a little wacky when I ordered this blend of Torres brandy, Peychaud's bitters, limonada, and, of course, that bastard tequila cousin turned well-to-do artisan spirit known as Mezcal. It was smoky with hints of plum and caramel finished with a touch of citrus. Me gusta.
-Marisol: Get this: you can only get this Belgian style wheat ale at Frontera. That's because Goose Island9 makes it only for Frontera. Frontera and Goose Island are, like, best friends. Which is nice. Anyways, I had three of them over the course of the afternoon and, as far as I can remember, it was creamy, crisp, fruity, versatile, and very food friendly.

Authenticity Report
According to my inside man, Cristian, Frontera's food was fantastic in both its respect for Mexican culinary tradition and in quality of ingredients used (including the use of Mexican avocados. Oh, he can tell the difference, don't try him). He was taken back to his childhood by the cebollitas (a favorite childhood snack), the verduras, and the guacamole, while being impressed by the ingenuity of the coctel and the borrego. It wasn't all glowing nostalgia, however. Cristian thought many dishes, notably the pato and the tomal lacked the heat he was expecting while the tortillas, while clearly housemade, were lacking in both robust corn flavor and hearty firm texture. Overall, he gives Ricky and his crew two thumbs up.

Bottom Line
Like my south-of-the-border-hermano, I was impressed by Frontera. I had absurdly high expectations going in and was prepared to be underwhelmed by an overhyped restaurant. Nothing could be further from the the truth, Frontera has managed to keep their food bold yet balanced (this is the fifth time I've used that word), their manner affable, and their bathrooms clean (didn't think I would comment on that did ya, Ricky?! Well I did! Ha!). In the end, I have to take my metaphorical toque off to RBay and his team and, because I know they all read my blog religiously, give a shout out to our stellar baritone-voiced server Alfredo. Also, a big gracias to Mr. Mendoza for his insight, his company, and his fashion tips (we have the same bike helmet).

*In case you didn't catch it, this review's title is a reference to Casablanca, if you haven't seen it then do yourself a favor and get some culture.

1. Healthy, Engaging, Fresh and Perfect
2. Sweet And Corny Creamy and Smoky-Intuitive
3. An Oldy But A Goody
4. Humble Green And Great
5. A Discerning Choice For True Connoisseurs 
6. hijole, that's all I've got to say about that.
7. Unwrap Some Fun And Get This Party Started!
8. Bubbly And Memorable Finish.
9. Goose Island was sold to InBev subsidiary Anheuser Busch the day after I posted this, thereby making them less cool and much less local. Just thought you should know.
Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon


  1. "like new acquaintances and Tootsie Pops..."

    I DO LOVE YOU for a reason!

  2. I'll see your 3 successful restaurants, army of loyal followers, and flawless goatee and raise you one low-budget blog review. GAME ON!

    This statement had my *SCFTMLISF

    No puedo esperar para ver lo que paso en el siguiente!

    *Stomach cramping from too much laughter, it so funny!

  3. I'm hilarious! thanks kate and free flowers!