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Favorite Mexican Restaurant?/ Frontera Grill

I am visiting Chicago next week, and would love to know what your favorite Mexican restaurant is. I'm from Indiana, and don't get to experience the type of Mexican food I know is out there (Fort Wayne has maybe one restaurant that I think is consistently delicious). I'm tired of the dumbed-down food I get here to appease the "gringo" palate. I was really interested in Frontera Grill until I read all the bad reviews on CitySearch about the poor service, the price disparity between the online menu and the actual one, and hit-and-miss food. Is it as bad as the reviews claim (like a 3-hour wait and disappointing dishes), or is Frontera Grill a true contender?

I'm looking for a place that is authentic and off the touristy path, and perhaps not as expensive as Frontera. I can afford a $50 meal, but I want it to be fantastic, and if I can get a great meal for less, well I'm all for it! Where do you go again and again?

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  1. Some of the review websites are overwhelmingly negative for ANY restaurant, even the very best. Pick the best place in town and look at reader reviews on Metromix, for example, and you'll find plenty of negatives. I think this is because people are a whole lot more likely to write reviews when they don't like a place than when they do.

    Frontera Grill is very good. A bit cramped but the food is excellent. The waiting times vary; you'll wait longer at 7:30 pm on a Saturday evening than if you get there on the early side or late side, or go during the week.

    Have you considered Topolobampo, its sister restaurant that is a bit more upscale and accepts reservations (on opentable.com )? It's also excellent.

    For comparisons between Topolobampo and Frontera Grill:

    For information about both places:

    Another, new option is Tepatulco ( www.tepatulco.com ), which recently opened by Geno Bahena, the owner of two previous excellent regional Mexican restaurants in town. See a review here:

    As another option, I've always liked Adobo Grill (two locations here) - www.adobogrill.com

    And there are lots of authentic neighborhood type restaurants in neighborhoods with large Mexican/Hispanic populations, like Pilsen, etc, if that's something you would consider. But they may or may not be as unusual as you appear to be looking for.

    One more option is Cuatro, which is more "Latin fusion" than Mexican. It's excellent (in fact, I had brunch there this morning!). www.cuatro-chicago.com

    2 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Thanks for the info! I agree with you that you are way more likely to post a bad review over a good one. I myself am guilty of it!

      1. re: nsxtasy

        My favorite Mexican restaurant is Flamingo's Seafood; it's the best Mexican food I've ever had outside of Mexico. (I didn't mention it in the previous post because I had not yet been there at that time, but I've been there 3-4 times since then and it's been wonderful every time.) It's a new place in Mount Prospect, near O'Hare Airport. The food is just incredible, specializing in creative provincial Mexican dishes. A week ago I ate there and had an unbelievable dish, a special of a huge piece of grilled Chilean sea bass which had been brushed with the same sauce which surrounded it, a guava habañero sauce which gave it a wonderful slightly fruity touch (there must have been very little habañero as it wasn't very spicy), and topped with crushed toasted pumpkin seeds. You can read about more of their items on the menu on their website. The decor is nothing fancy; it's a converted fast food restaurant, I think, but with some pleasant murals painted on the walls.

        Flamingo's Seafood
        1590 S. Busse Road
        Mt. Prospect, IL
        (847) 364-9988

      2. Topolobampo is an especially good deal at lunch. The tasting menu isn't available, but you can have a terrific three-course lunch for about $50 per person. There's no lunch on Saturdays.

        1. Adobo Grill and Salpicon, both on North Wells Street, are also very good.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Francophile

            The Adobo Grill in Wicker Park tends to be a little less crowded, especially on weekend nights, but there are a lot more things to do around the Wells St. location. Since you are in Indiana, they also have a location in Indianapolis. If you do go to Adobo, beware the margaritas that don't have the price listed in the menu! A business associate of mine ordered one of those on the reccomendation of the bartender, it cost $75 for the one drink.

              1. re: christina_hunnicutt

                That's such a rip-off.... as if there's a dime's worth of difference between the 5 margarita and the 75 dollar one.... apologies to your friend.

                Especially surprising since it was at Adobo. a Party of 4 can get in and out of there EASILY for less than 75 bucks without drinks. Here your friend is paying 75 for one drink. Ridiculous

          2. I HIGHLY recommend Topolobampo for lunch; especially since you can make a reservation (unlike the attached Frontera Grill). Entrees are in the $15.00-$20.00 range and starters (soups/apps/ceviches/oysters) are appox. $8-$14; plus you get complimentary (and flawless) guacamole and chips. Very easy to stay under $50 for lunch, which you can't really do at dinner. Frontera is also very good, but Topo is on another level altogether...and at lunchtime it is only a couple dollars more expensive than the less-fancy Frontera Grill.

            Metromix and CitySearch reader reviews are often amusing, but aren't good for much else.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Pugman

              Thank you! I might look into Topolobampo for lunch. Since I am not from Chicago and haven't really visited the city much- I come for a day about 3 or 4 times a year and eat at quick places- I don't know how to take these reviews...but Chowhound has helped SO much!

              1. re: Pugman

                Would you still say this was true? I'll be in Chicago next week and I'd already decided on lunch at Frontera Grill( on the day I leave, Tuesday). Would you still pick Topolobampo over Frontera?

                1. re: Calipoutine

                  I was at Topolo for lunch last Tuesday and it was at the top of its game--great food, service, atmosphere, and a real bargain. Frontera is always good too, but--quite apart from some more interesting food--Topolo is quieter (esp. if you ask to be in the back room, further from the entrance) and you can get a reservation.

              2. Add Riques Regional to your list.... 5004 N. Sheridan

                Not one of the "big names" but excellent cooks and interesting dishes.

                1. Everyone is recommending some "fancier" places. If you want "authentic" and "off the touristy path" why don't you go to a place like Nuevo Leon?http://www.nuevoleonrestaurant.com/

                  It's in a Mexican neighborhood, cheaper than the above recommendations, always good and always packed.

                  1. In addition to being authentic, Nuevo Leon is BYOB, which will keep the costs down!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: wineaux

                      What is up with BYOB? Is it a Chicago thing? I have never heard of this concept before at restaurants.

                      1. re: christina_hunnicutt

                        BYOB (bring your own booze) is not confined to Chicago. Not every restaurant wants to stock and serve liquor, particularly smaller and less expensive places. I'm not in the restaurant industry but I would imagine there are licensing costs and other costs and regulations associated with serving liquor, which can be avoided by not doing so. Some restaurants charge a corkage fee, while others serve for free. For customers who enjoy wine (or beer) with dinner, it saves money by avoiding the higher liquor markups normally found in restaurants.

                          1. re: christina_hunnicutt

                            Its also tough to get a liquor license in our fair city. Getting a license includes an extensive background check of all partial owners, including a 10 year work history review and,I hear, ingerprinting. Also a lengthy process to transfer licenses to a new owner if a restaurant changes mangement. Plus you have wait periods approved licensees can begin selling, and the licenses themselves are costly - a fwe grand a year or so. There are nine different kinds of licenses, so for example you need a special license for an outdoor beer garden, or a late night license. And of course some wards in the city are dry, so they are out of the question...

                            Some places that can't deal with the cost or hassle just stick with BYO, and many new places end up opening up before they have a license.

                    2. I *finally* got to go to Frontera yesterday night. I was really excited because my boyfriend and I have probably an unnatural obession with the show Mexico One Plate at a Time and with Rick Bayless himself. But because of that, I was also a little afraid that I would have built it up too much in my head. Thankfully, that proved not to be the case. Everything was wonderful. We had a 6 PM reservation (called in that day for parties less than 5) and were seated promptly. I didn't see Rick himself but that was okay. We started off with the Toplo margaritas which were excellent. Then "Tetelas Doradas: crispy corn masa triangles filled with homemade goat cheese and grilled woodland mushrooms; smoky avocado-tomatillo salsa, pickled vegetables and grilled green onions. 7.50 " which were probably the only misstep of the evening. Kind of bland and not too exciting. I got the "Pato al Pasilla Oaxaqueño: ancho-rubbed, wood-grilled Gunthorp duck breast with smoky Oaxacan pasilla-tomatillo sauce, slices of tamalón (filled with duck carnitas), grilled calabacitas and queso añejo. 22.00 ". If I were at home, I would of licked my plate. It was fantastic. The duck was perfectly cooked. My boyfriend got the "Pollo al Ajillo Cremoso: wood-grilled Gunthorp chicken breast in creamy-garlicky-smoky morita chile sauce (laced with mezcal); red chile rice and wilted Snug Haven spinach. 21.00 ". The few tastes I was allowed were delicious. It was a complete contrast with my dish which while wasn't inentional proved to be very nice. No dessert as we were stuffed.

                      All in all, it was a perfect evening. We weren't rushed. The waiter was friendly and helpful without being obtrusive. I was worried after reading about some service problems. Granted we did go early on a weekday so I know that made a difference. I didn't feel too fancy in a dress although it was a bit more casual than I had anticpated (but that's my bais of downtown restaurants). I would recommend this place to anyone!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: lbs

                        I visited Chicago last weekend from DC and unfortunately, I can't say that I had good meal at Frontera Grill. I spent 3 weeks traveling and eating my way through lovely Mexico about 4 years ago. For obvious reasons, I had hoped that Rick Bayless' restaurant would offer some reminders of the wonderful meals I had on that trip. After reading this string, I was sure that I could keep my hopes high and that we'd have a tasty experience.

                        Regrettably, all we got were mediocre margaritas and COLD boring food. While the ingredients used were clearly quality, even our pork tacos were bland and almost inedible. I knew we were in trouble, when a restaurant with this much hype and stature can't do a taco right. The only thing mildly interesting the enchilada mole. It definitely tasted like a true mole which I've been unable to find in DC.

                        After that experience, I don't think I would even try Topolo. All four us were quite sad to have to say that we didn't enjoy our meals.

                        The bottom line: Serving food that has been clearly sitting around is totally inexcusable. Don't bother going here. Gourmet magazine wrote a fantastic article a few months ago about all of the Mexican restaurants energizing Chicago. You're better off trying one of those places.

                      2. CH- I'm not sure if your mind is already made up to go or not, but I think your in that area of questioning that can only be satisfied by going and getting the answer for yourself.

                        I think there is a major disconnect on this board between the hounds who go for high price/service/ambiance vs those who go to have simply outstanding food and judge a place only by whats on the plate. That being said, I believe the Bayless places cater and satisfy the first group, and fall short to the second.

                        IMO, both Frontera Grill & Topolobompo are good, not great. And neither one is very "authentic" in the blue collar sense as they both feel and TASTE very much like high end gringo versions of Mexican food, at least that's how I judged the plates of food put in front me.. It was not what I expected based on Rick Bayless own show "one plate at a time" which paints a much different perspective of Mexican food than what is experienced at his very own restaurant, in other words, there was no "comfort food" anywhere in sight.

                        That being said, GO! Get it out of your system, just don't have overly high expectations and you will enjoy yourself.

                        As to the poor service and prices comments you've read, I think that's mostly untrue. The service is top notch, and the menu prices seemed fair for being a downtown resto where nothing is cheap. But if cost is a concern, go at lunchtime to save a few $$'s or for pretty much the same tasting food, go to the Macy's 7th floor for the Bayless Frontera Fresco for his take on food court style food, but cooked to order.

                        Either way, I think you should balance your Mexican weekend with at least one of the multitude authentic (average joe) places in town to complete your view, I don't see recommendations for these kinds of places as much as I would like, but if your ever way up north I can name dozens.

                        There was one more thread that applies with lots of colorful comments and thoughts as well: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/416506

                        1. I am a 'hound visiting from the South and had been dying to try Frontera. I took 2 friends there last night for one of their birthday's. I was sorely disappointed in the whole experience, especially in the meal. We got there around 8:45, expecting to wait, but was told it was about 2 to 2 1/2 hours for a table. They said they closed at 10 so I wasn't sure how they came up w/that number. We decided to fend for ourselves at the bar and it was really, really crowded. However, we were able to snag a table in about 20 minutes and decided to dine there. The bar decidedly thinned out not long after we were at a table so we were completely baffled that we were told the wait was that long.

                          Onto the meal. The margaritas were quite disppointing. I had the house margarita and it had a slightly bitter aftertaste. I should have sent it back for something else but I decided not to. We had the steamed calamari and shrimp "ceviche" appetizer as well as the guacamole. The ceviche was small in a martini glass and okay, not great by any meals. It didn't have a great flavor profile to me. The guacamole was a little better but didn't have the spice that I was expecting. My friends thought it was a bit salty but liked the texture--very creamy. For dinner, we all ordered steak, two oaxquena (sp?) and I had the brava. The steak were all ordered medium rare and they were all pretty chewy. Mine had a good amount of gristle on it. The corn tamales were absolutely delicious, as were the side of zucchini and hot peppers. Very spicy too. The steak was lackluster. I had to hack into the meat to even cut a piece of it and the presentation of it was not very appetizing. I had to keep chewing and chewing and chewing to finally get it down. The service was spotty, w/our server gone for long periods of time, no refills on water or cocktails, as well as taking about 30 minutes to get our apps. The ladies restroom was also pretty gross, clearly had not been serviced for most of the dinner rush.

                          I was quite disappointed in my overall experience. I had wanted to go to Topolobampo but will clearly rethink it now.

                          1. We just had Saturday brunch there this past weekend. I thought it was fantastic and the service was great. We arrived at 10:30 (skipped breakfast) and were seated immediately. They had lots of egg dishes, but plenty other lunch type items. My husband had a special pork tamale which he loved. I had a vegetarian tamale stack with veggies....slightly sweet. Nothingwas bold but the drinks. Guacamole excellent. I liked it a lot and definitely will go back.

                            1. It's not as fancy as the other recommendations, but my favorite is Taqueria Moran right under the California blue line station (California and Milwaukee). Great gorditas and the red salsa (not the one in the little molcajete, but the one in the squirt bottle) is fantastic (it's made with chiles de arbol). Very high marks on their Carne a la Tampiquena, too. And now that the weather's getting colder, I'll definitely be going to my favorite place for Caldo de Res - the taqueria inside Danny's Fresh Market (on Western, north of Armatage). The guys and gals at Danny's make a mean Caldo de Res with plenty of cabbage, which is how I like it).

                              1. I made a crazy typo! I meant to say "nothing was cold" . The meals came out piping hot.

                                1. Here are some pics from a recent meal at Frontera. It was good, but my friend and I both agreed that we liked Nuevo Leon better. It was a lot cheaper too. At Frontera, I had a tamale w/ pork, it was in a guajillo fig sauce. My friend had taquito's and the soup from Topo.

                                  1. I would go with the first recommendation for Mexican food in the Pilsen neighborhood; unpretentious, affordable, and really great, authentic Mexican food.

                                    Mundial, 1640 West 18th Street, BYOB.

                                    But as another suggested, if you HAVE to visit Frontera/Topolobompo, do it and get it out of your system. But in terms of consistency and affordability, you're better off in Pilsen. They do it right, time after time.

                                    1. Taco Real in Hammond Indiana is one of my favorites. It'd be a great place to stop at one the way to, or leaving the city.