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Dec 15, 2003 09:17 AM

Not Frontera/Frontera

  • v

Perhaps, my most consistent recommendation on Chowhound has been for that place, Not Frontera.  I never meant to denigrate Frontera or Rich Bayless per se.  I surely give Bayless credit for turning me on to all the wonders of Maxwell Street, and I respect what he has done to encourage Mexican eating. I would not know and appreciate Not Frontera if it was not for Frontera. I also appreciate Bayless's support of various forms of sustainable agriculture even as I have always taken issues with a few things at Frontera. The prices, the countless extra charges, the wait, always bugged me, but I did not really attack the food. 

Not Frontera meant go somewhere else.  Go somewhere new, somewhere not mentioned in every story about Chicago food.  Go to someone without cookbooks, without reviews in the newspapers, without a listing in Chicago Magazine's Top 20.  Not Frontera gave me so much enjoyment with its tastes of all parts of Mexico. At Not Frontera, I was constantly impressed with the effort put into the smallest of details. Like at a small burrito stand on the farthest Western fringes of Chicago, they make a delicious salsa from burlap sacks full of dried peppers. I am confident in my love of Not Frontera.

Over my existence on Chowhound, (I believe) I have written about more Mexican than any other kind of food. I backed up Not Frontera by introducing people to exotically stuffed quesadilla's at Dona Lois and the glories of a simple place amidst some industrial buildings in Cicero.  I helped bring the many regions of Mexico here in Chicago to the eater, including restaurants specializing in the food of Nayarit, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Michoacan.  I showed that behind the doors of a rusty purple van existed the best sopes ever, and talked about lesser known dishes like carne en su jugo and pozole.  In turn, others added and expanded, the whole meaning of Not Frontera, with essays on the origins of cemita's, guidebooks to 26th street, and thoughts on all thing Geno Bahena (plus way more things on Mexican food than can be mentioned in this one post).  Chicago Chowhound contains a hell of a lot of support for Not Frontera.  So, in the end, Frontera.

I ate at Frontera for the first time in a few years this Saturday.  I recognize that while Not Frontera may be generally more pleasurable to me, I have never ruled out Frontera as good place to eat.  Plus, I was meeting someone from out of town who had a limited timeframe in Chicago.  We had no opportunity to truck it out to Not Frontera.  Really, in the intervening years, I wanted to see how Frontera stacked up against Not Frontera.  And will you be surprised if I said, not that well.

I remember the original lay out at Frontera, when the bar dominated one room.  Over time, they have expanded their seating, enhancing the decor and its theme of Mexican primitive art, especially the day of the dead tchotkes.  It is a styled decorator look that you will not see in the barrio.  Still, in this time, Frontera crammed as many tables into this space as possible.  Over our lunch, we constantly had to shuffle plates and such to maintain space on the table, and because we had no room for the tortilla's, they kept on trying to snag them from us because I put them on the ledge.  Pretty, but not very comfortable.  The service too was rather schitzo.  We arrived within minutes of opening, and when the place was still quiet, we got a fair amount of attention and warmth.  By the time the place was filled and bustling, the service broke down.  We never saw our server toward the end of the meal.

On the plate, and quickly, I know this is getting long.  One dish really impressed me, it was exactly the dish I want from Frontera.  A tinga de honga, a stew of wild and exotic mushrooms, spiced mysteriously and with a good amount of heat.  Highly delicious wrapped in the fresh made tortillas (which I must add are not as good as some found at Not Frontera). Not Frontera, however, would never, never have mushrooms this special, and this was a dish planned, conceived and executed with chef skills.  The tortilla soup also benefited from an organized kitchen, having a well-performed stock behind it, yet the flavors on top were still a bit muted for me. On the other hand, Not Frontera serves more tasty tamals, Frontera's tamal was flat--both in shape and in flavor.  Two moles paled to some found at Not Frontera.  They just lacked soul.  Me, I like a little trail of oil behind my mole.  It should be thick, greasy, maybe gritty, and unctuous, not smooth and refined.  Same thing for the table salsa's, which I believe are just from the well-displayed jars, tasty, refined but not nearly as satisfying as what you would find at Not Frontera.  I have said before that I feel much more safe ordering ceviche at Frontera vs. Not Frontera, but right now I really preferred Not Frontera ceviche, say Islas Marias ceviche.  Frontera's ceviche was way over marinated and again, not as forward with the flavors.  Finally, I tried dessert, something I rarely do at Not Frontera.  Believe me, no dessert may have beaten out the dry and plain pay de coco (coconut pie) served at Frontera.

I understand always the need for some people to try Frontera.  After all, it made the most sense for me on Saturday.  Still, after giving Frontera a good whirl, I am more confident than ever with Not Frontera.


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  1. Just in case Vital Information is responding to hurt feelings or legal intimidation because of anything he may have said about Frontera Grill, I would like to go on record saying that I would prefer taking guests to White Castle Hamburgers rather than Frontera Grill. At Frontera a dozen of us were allowed to wait outdoors in pouring rain for thirty minutes when the staff (just on the other side of the glass, watching us freeze and get soaked) might have unlocked their sacred door a bit early. Especially since we were all then seated in the bar, hopefully to buy lots of drinks, for another half-hour. As for the food, my impression is that el emperador esta desnudo y se queda sin ropa ninguna. Right on, Vital Information, and don't apologize to Bayless: this is a great big ciudad just loaded with cocineros mexicanos: let's hear it for that nice lady at Maxwell Street who slaps out her own tortillas.

    5 Replies
    1. re: N Tocus

      I wonder how hospitable the White Castle staff is to customers who show up 30 minutes prior to their opening.

      I'll "go on record" too -- I will gladly accept your vacated seat at Frontera, where I've appreciated outstanding service. And the emperor looks just fine to me.

      Anyway...Vital -- thanks for another well-reasoned post supported by thoughtful comparisons. I look forward to seeing Not Frontera for myself.

      1. re: Dave

        The Frontera visit I wrote about took place on Friday, August 1, 2003 and was timed precisely in accordance with the suggestion I was given by restaurant staff. Since Frontera does not take reservations for a party of four and one member of our party was elderly and infirm, I had asked how we could minimize our wait. I was told we should arrive half an hour before opening because later the wait would be even longer. We did as they said. During our waiting period, two inches of rain fell on downtown Chicago. The dozen of us waiting all got soaked. The staff watched us through the glass. Apart from considering whether we may expect civil behavior from the staff of a nice restaurant, can we look at why VI felt he must write such a disclaimer? When I read it I wondered if he had gotten into some sort of trouble for criticizing, or seeming to criticize, the restaurant. If that happened, it should be of concern to all of us.

        1. re: N Tocus

          I inferred more "entertaining prelude" than "disclaimer". Maybe I'm off-base, but I read it as hesitance to dine at a place that used to be so-called cutting-edge, but is now more mainstream. Anyway...only VI could tell us for sure.

          That said, nobody in a group of 12 thought to tap on the window and say "hey..we know we're a bit early, but would you mind if we waited in here?".

          I'm not trying to legitimize deplorable treatment on their part (I feel restaurants should welcome you as though you are a guest at their home, not have you standing out like a dog in the rain scratching on the window). I just found your post surprising and unfortunate as the service I've experienced at Frontera has been as welcoming and knowledgeable as anywhere I've been.

          1. re: Dave

            As this thread has denigrated to the point where it is no longer about food, I may as well add insult to injury. Here are some helpful tips regarding the use of Frontera and other North side hot spots.

            Frontera is a busy and popular restaurant and they don't take reservations. There always a wait, there will always be a wait, if you don't like to wait you have two choices: (1) Book a table at Topolobampo which does take reservations (2) Don't go there! (strange, nobody posts complains about waiting outside in the cold for Lou Mitchell's and the like). Bottom line, the decision whether any restaurant is "worth the wait" is up to the diner.

            Friday and Saturday are the busiest and in my opinion the worst nights of the week to dine out. You compound your troubles by trying to dine with a large group on these nights. You're best off looking for places with small private rooms for groups of 10 or more. If you really want the best experience, go mid-week.

            Finally, where does this strange speculation of "legal action" by these restaurateurs against those who post here come from???. Trust me, Rick Bayless is too busy to take any retribution upon "the hounds", this is also not his style. You are more likely to be censored by another hound (I know. I have) than be sued by a restaurateur.


      2. re: N Tocus

        I'd suggest avoiding Mondays then, as they are closed, so you don't wait out in the rain all day instead of just a 1/2 hour before they open.

      3. s

        Thank you again for yet another informative post but, I'm not really clear on what you are trying to accomplish here? Comparing "Not Frontera" to "Frontera" is a bit like trying to weed your garden with a back hoe....while it is a thought provoking report, I see no reason to compare the two.

        Both F & NF are of vital importance to our city's dining culture and are completely different experiences. I for one, enjoy them both immensely.

        Keep in mind that there are many folks who travel here on business and are looking for a signature Chicago restaurant (I would still consider Frontera to be one of these) for lunch or dinner and cannot or would not take a cab/bus to Pilsen, La Villita, etc.. Some people just don't like steaming bowls of offal or eyeball tacos.

        Also, there are wine and tequila aficionados that enjoy the vast selection of tequilas and inventive wine program (including some quite good Mexican wines). When I want the perfect "El Tesoro Plata" Margarita, I know it won't be available at a Maxwell Street food stall. We must also consider the fact that there ARE upscale restaurants in Mexico, not everyone is eating street food. I speculate that Rick Bayless himself would never purport to be recreating the "barrio" experience.

        I do not understand why so many people on this board, VI excluded, as his postings are mostly to inform or express his personal opinion (that why were here, right?) take such pleasure in "demonizing" the success of Chicago restaurant pioneers like Rick Bayless, Charlie Trotter and Rich Melman. Over the last 30 years, we are all eating better due to their efforts.

        Finally, I have noticed that there are many hounds that feel cheated if their meal is more than $12.

        Let's use our collective powers for good, not evil.

        1. The thread seems to verging over to the Not About Food board category (calling Jim Leff!). The issue seems to be whether the food at Frontera (its relative quality essentially a given) is worth the hassle of a long, uncomfortable wait (whether in a downpour outside, or at the bar), cramped quarters and occasionally sub-standard service -- a perennial subject on this board.

          This is not unlike the issue of airline seating, where some people are indifferent to leg space and others are willing to pay to stretch out a little. Frontera has figured out to the millimeter how much space customers are willing to forego to dine on Bayless food. They'll lose a few customers' loyalty as they shave inches off the space, but there's plenty of more people in line.

          I've enjoyed Frontera over time, but (for all the reasons above) gradually stopped going as its specialness dimmed. Moreover, I value my trips to Back of the Yards, Little Village, etc. for their own sake, whereas I feel nothing but revulsion for the congestion and glitz of the River North area. Yet I'm sure that time-pressed out-of-towners and others appeciate the convenient location of the Frontera. As I say, everyone values these things differently.

          It is also odd, given (my assumption) that Bayless increasingly relies on the tourist/suburban trade, that he still rations out the space by not accepting reservations. (Geez, I mean how much revenue does the Bayless empire really need?) AS I now rely on babysitters for evenings out, the inconvenience of this set-up interferes with my patronage.

          1. I would put myself firmly on the side of Not Frontera as well. Not at all because I object to Frontera, or that Rick has done anything wrong. In fact, he has introduced me to many things, and we have unintentionally crossed paths numerous times in good ways and places over the years.

            And for many years when out of town people asked me about Trotters, I would say, skip that and go to Topolobampo for a really fine and creative meal.

            Besides the issues of being crowded and very popular, which create real challenges for any place, there is nothing wrong with Frontera or Topolobampo, but I prefer the overall experience at Chipancingo (less crowded, equally good food, slightly lower prices) and the many traditional neighborhood places offer an easy, and rich experience for every day, though I have only scratched the surface.

            The point of Not Frontera, IMO, is that it expands our horizons and makes this stuff available and accessible every day. Great Mexican food is almost everywhere in this lovely town and needs to be encouraged and supported. So as a patron of these arts, it is my job to support Not Frontera and help it grow, from the street vendors to Geno Bahena. Bayless has earned what he has and clearly deserves it, but I have paid my dues and can move on. That is how I see it.


            1. I started going to Frontera about 7 years ago.
              About 3-4 years ago I felt there was a drop off in the quality. I have heard the same from a couple of friends.

              I pretty much don't bother with Frontera anymore. After avoiding it for 2 years, I took some friends in August. We were there 20 minutes before they opened and were about the 10th group in line. After they opened the doors, it took an hour to get our table.

              Chilpancingo had some service problems early on, but now I've never waited a minute for a table (it's huge), and I find the food and margaritas to be superior to frontera these days.