A Mexican's Perspective of Topolobampo.... Pretty Good, Yet Dissappointing
I was in Chicago on business this week, and while I had not planned on it we ended up a Topolobampo without reservations & an expense account. I have made productive use of a Bayless' cookback... and have been starved of authentic Mexican cusine out in California... so I perked up when I saw it walking down Clark Street.
We got there at 6:50...and both restaurants were bumping. Deanne did not laugh at me when I asked for a table at Topo...and as it turned out a 7:00 party failed to show up...and we were in!
From seating to cashing out, the service was fairly slow & absent. Further, the waiter was excessively pretentious, quiet and confused between a Mexican & French accent. When I spoke in Spanish he didn't seem to understand me...so I assume he was just a pretender. No one at the table understood his English either. The guy was just too pretentious, geeky & wussy... don't know if its a Chicago thing... but one of the things I like about high-end places in California & Mexico... is that it is about the product & artsy decor... great dining does not require a stuffy ambiance... in fact it detracts from it. In my view... the English invented all the Silverware protocol & dinner manners... because they had nothing else to contribute to the culinary world!
I certainly appreciated that the food is closer to something I might eat in a typical Mexico City neighborhood... than your typical Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex crap... and was grateful to have Guasmole (a sauce made from Tomatillos & the Guaje fruit) for the first time in 10 years...but the food was all surprisingly low key.
One of the reasons to eat authentic Mexican cuisine is that it contributes a refreshingly robust & complex palette of flavors that can turn even brussel sprouts into a culinary delight... while avoiding the pitfalls of some other cuisines... like the butter & cream obsession in France, & the overly brash use of spices in Indian & Tex Mex cuisine with their associated after-tastes & "toxicity". In good Mexican cuisine it is very easy to consume 10 fruits & vegetables a day...without even noticing it! But, the food at Topolobampo is way too subtle... this surprises me because I am usually cutting back on chiles & spices from Bayless' recipes.
The Tequila list was great... I chose a Corazon ($13) from about 20 different Silver Tequilas & without asking... it was automatically served in a snifter with a wedge of lime.
The complimentary Guacamole was delicious...and I appreciated his innovation of serving it with slices of Cucumber & Turnips... as opposed to the Tortilla Chips in Tex-Mex.
The Ceviches were better than average, kudos for offering a wide variety... but honestly there are at least 10 Lunch Trucks & Dives in L.A. that prepare better Ceviche.
The Sopa Azteca was fairly good... I liked that the dry ingredient were plated in the bowl...and then the server poured the broth from copper pots at your table... nice touch. But... the broth was far too subtle... it really lacked more Pasilla Chile & Herbs. Now I understand... if he tones it down for wine pairing... but why carry Riesling's, Gewurtz & Sparkling Wine.. if the food is not going to be even slightly spicy?
Speaking of wine... what's up with no Mexican wines? I know that supply is tight... but high end Mexican restaurants like Rosa Mexicano (Manhattan) & Frida (Beverly Hills) usually have them. Good lord... if they can't get the Award Winning wines from Monte Xanic & Santo Tomas... you would think they could get at least get the big production Cetto's or Pedro Domecqs.
The Duck Breast in Guasmole was tasty...but the Duck (Free Range Midwestern) was a little tough even though it was Medium Rare... I think they should have roasted it slowly instead of grilling it.
The tortillas were great... they had the earthiness & persistent, sensual aromas that I had forgotten with all the mediocre handmade tortillas you find in California.
In summary... Topolobampo was pretty good all around, but I don't really feel compelled to ever go back. I would rather prepare the food myself with the aid of Bayless' recipes. In fact, a few weeks ago we entertained a group at our home in Sonoma County that was substantially better than what I had a Topo. I still salivate over the Deconstructed Roasted Mushroom & Mole Tamal, Squash Blossom Soup, Chile en Nogada & Pumpkin Pie-Chipotle Ice Cream!
Thanks for the report and for your perspective on Topolobampo. It’s good to hear that some aspects of the evening lived up to expectations, even if other parts were disappointing (or annoying!).
Though this information won’t be of practical use to you now that you are back home, let me mention that there are non-high end Mexican places in Chicago serving food more robustly flavored, which you would perhaps enjoy on a future visit. But unfortunately such places are far removed from the part of Chicago convenient for business dinners on expense accounts, without the selection of premium tequilas, etc. One example of this sort of mid-level place I have in mind is La Casa de Samuel, a few miles southwest of downtown in the La Villita neighborhood. It’s a Guerrerense restaurant specializing in cecina de venado, guilota, cabrito al horno with a great chile pasilla salsa, etc., all with freshly made tortillas. Here’s a link with a few pictures:
I of course don’t mean to suggest that a neighborhood spot like that is at all in the same league as Topolobampo – rather I just want to reassure you that Chicago is not devoid of some of the intense flavors that you are having a hard time finding now in Sonoma restaurants and didn’t get enough of at Topolobampo. (And I wonder if you would have enjoyed Bayless’s renditions more on the Frontera side of the restaurant, actually.)
Your description of the service at Topolobampo sounds dreadful indeed, inexcusable at a restaurant of that quality. My husband Antonius and I had a waiter like that years ago at Coco Pazzo here, an American putting on a fake accent which was a bad mix of Italian and French, who went so far as to “correct” my husband’s pronunciation of a dish he ordered. (The waiter was wrong.) My husband switched to speaking Italian, which left the waiter staring blankly in incomprehension. Those absurd shenanigans by the waiter did put a damper on our enjoyment of an otherwise excellent meal.