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Jun 29, 2007 03:25 PM

TOPOLOBAMPO - Just alright, not GREAT!

This past week, I finally had my chance to experience this highly rated restaurant and to say I was disappointed would be a soft and polite way of stating how I truly felt.

The good;
* Great staff and service, they were knowable about the dishes and preparations and were relatively attentive to me with no issues, but at these prices they better be! There were long gaps in my waiters visits, but as a "party of one" that almost always seems to be the case no matter where I go.
* The ambiance and decor were very cool; but who really gives a crap? I'm there for the food!
* Everything was plated beautifully.

The bad;
* Very limited wines by the glass list, I'm a single diner and quite frankly, I cant put away a whole bottle of wine by myself and I refuse to throw away a half bottle - thats alcohol abuse!
* The Portions are scant, and very small, for those prices I should have seen a bit more. I left hungry.
* The food was mild and bland, with the flavors being very muted, while lacking the vibrant spirit of true Latin cuisine. And for a place that is supposedly so renowned as being "authentic" Mexican this was hard to forgive.
* There were bizarre bits of "American" influence and ingredients in everything, from the slice of radish in my Guacamole, to the strange cornmeal chips that break clean and have no darn taste as if they are lightly sprayed with PAM and baked, not fried.

In summary;
This is my second Bayless restaurant experience and there wont be a third, it's all "style over substance" and lacks the true feel of a satisfying meal at a top notch restaurant.

I left feeling like it was just to "white" of an experience for me. With bookcases full of DVD's, cookbooks and teeshirts, I felt like I was a tourist at the Rock and Roll McDonald's. If Taco Bell were to ever open a sit down establishment, especially in this neighborhood it would run be run by Bayless.

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  1. What did you have? "mild and bland ... flavors very muted" doesn't descibe anything I've had at Topolobampo.

    1 Reply
    1. re: gymp

      I went with what the waiter recommended; "chicken en mole" with a tamale. He said that was the most accurate experience of what the restaurant is famous for.

      I also had the cream of asparagus and smoked turkey with chipotle (not impresive) and the guacamole (very good, but I've had better) which came with the meal.

      I did not stick around for desert as I was plenty disapointed and felt "overspent" by that point.

    2. Poor Rick Bayless. He's some kid from the midwest, discovers the wonders of Mexican cooking at a time when no one in the midwest knew a Mole as much more than a rodent, goes to Mexico to study the cuisine, writes an excellent cookbook on true, authentic Mexican cooking, puts together a very educational series for PBS, opens a couple of restaurants that introduce real Mexican cooking to thousands. He has probably done more than any other individual to bring real Mexican cooking to the US, and every month someone logs on to Chowhound and totally trashes his restaurants.

      First of all, it seem pretty clear to me that Topolobampo does not intend to be 100% autentic - just atke a look at the menu (posted by the front door) and almost every dish mixes in some non-traditional ingredients - radishes, wild mushrooms, asparagus, whatever. So your repeated comments that he does not stick 100% to Mexican traditions holds no water for me. If thie food isn't good, that's another matter, but to criticise purely on the ingredients is not a positive or negative, just a fact. Some of the best food in America mixes in new local ingredients with traditional cooking methods with outstanding results.

      In fact, you mention problems with the wine list.. Wine is certainly not a Mexican tradition, but Mexican food tastes wonderful with wine, so that's a good thing.

      As far as mild food is concerned, I find that all sorts of ethnic restaurants in the US tone the spice way down - all sorts of outstanding Thai, Indian, and Mexican/Latin restaurants do that. In general, you can tell the waiter to spice it up a little to better suit your tastes. Fact is, a restaurant that serves any of these cuisines at their more traditional heat levels limits its customer base.

      Bland food, well that should not be.

      So I am not saying that Bayless makes the best Mexican food in the world, or even Chicago, in fact it is not my prefered option for Mexican food, but its not bad. It's all overpriced, but given the costs of doing business in that area, really just typical for what you find in the neighbrohood.

      And the "just too white" comment, we don't need to go there. If you mean too commercial, than say too commercial. No reason to turn a restaurant review into a personal insult.

      Sorry that you didn't enjoy the meal, but it sounds like a match destined to end in disappointment based on your expectations.

      Fortunately, there is a huge ammout of wonderful Mexican food in Chicago. If you want something more traditional, check out David Hammonds six part series for the Chicago Reader, or go here:, or you'll find a few here: Better luck next time.

      10 Replies
      1. re: wak

        The restaurant review I gave was my honest opinion, and you are free to agree with it or not. This is not a site to argue, or attempt change anyone’s opinion and win, but is simply a site to post your opinion, and I did just that.

        Yes, I am aware that more traditional Mexican is available in Chicago, having been a lifelong Chicagoan myself.

        My comment of it being "white" means that it is not Mexican enough. Is it too commercial as well? Well now that you mention it, yes. But that does not change the fact that the meals are clearly more are focused on pleasing the standard mild (or whiter) American pallet rather than one that is Hispanic. Having lived in several Mexican dominated areas of the country, and being of Hispanic descent, I think I know the real deal when I eat it, so I feel no guilt in calling it as I see it. I would offer to call it "Americanized" except for the fact that it's not. The Americanized styles of Tex-Mex, Southwest or Cal-Mex cooking are obviously not influences that are at work here, not to mention those styles are all much spicier.

        As to Rick Bayless, yes, he is a Midwesterner from Oklahoma (not that should be an issue), but by no means did he "discover" Mexican cuisine. Rather he grew up in an area where it was always available, but with heavy American influences. I believe he grew tired of the Tex-Mex styles that surrounded him and wanted to reach back to find the roots of Mexican cuisine from deeper inside Mexico where the American influences were less overpowering or nonexistent. This is why my disappointment with Topolobampo is so great. Topolobampo did nothing to make me feel like I was "transported" deep into Mexico through an amazing meal, but rather made me feel like I was at a Chi-Chi’s with better plating and a more expensive decor. The issue with this Bayless restaurant is that they do not claim to be Latino Nuevo, Tex/Cal-Mex or any other American variation of influence, but instead they claim to be authentic inspired dishes from the heart of Mexico, and on that level, in this reviewer’s opinion, they failed.

        1. re: abf005

          Hi abf005,

          I would agree with almost everything you said. Except the Chi-Chi's comment, although I think I caught the drift of what you were saying ;)

          The impression that I walked away with after eating at Topolobampo was that it simply missed the mark. I was hoping to have the sampler and walk away as if the Chef had properly conveyed pieces of Mexico to me. Instead, I walked away eating a meal that was decent. From a chef of this caliber I was disappointed with just another decent Chicago meal.

          I wanted more!


          1. re: gonefishin

            I have no first-hand knowledge of Mexican cuisine, so I can't judge Bayless' authenticity; nor have I been to very many other Chicago Mexican restaurants, so I can't compare Topolobampo with them. I have, however, eaten over many years at most of the best French restaurants in Chicago and also at a good number of the best French restaurants in Paris and London. What impresses me about Bayless is that he offeres dishes, obviously based on the Mexican tradition, that are in the same league of subtlety, complexity, and depth of flavor as those I've had at many top French restaurants. I can understand people thinking that his food is not authentic or even not as good as at other Mexican restaurants. But I simply don't understand the suggestion that it's bad or even merely decent.

          2. re: abf005


            I guess we all have different opinions about what Chowhound is, but one of the things I find most interesting is when opinions are exchanged and people comment on each others posts, either positive or negative as the case may be.

            In fact, I find your comments on this second post shed more light on why you were disappointed with your Topolobampo experience than the original post. I still don't agree that he creates food comperable to a Chi Chi's, or that he should be lumped together with Taco Bell, but I have a much better idea of why you felt the way that you did.

            1. re: wak

              Wak & Dan, thank you for pointing that out, your both absolutely right.

              The taco bell/Chi-Chi’s comment is indeed too harsh, and in fact an unfair insult to Topolo, so I rescind my comparison of the two obviously very inferior examples of Mexican cuisine, it’s a good thing I hadn’t thought of Chipotle’s either!

              Seriously, I was searching for a comparison to use that exists in the Mexican market today that tries to explain the commercial/ corporate/ “marketed to” experience that I felt, and my comment missed the mark.

              I suppose a comparison to PF Chang’s might have been better, no, not because of the food per se, but because of the “feel”. For example, PF Chang’s is obviously a chain restaurant specializing in Asian cuisine. They generally do a decent job (especially for a chain), are they as good as most of the Chinatown places? No! But they bring a corporate feel, a sanitized, or higher dining experience to the masses that doesn’t really exist in Chinatown. It’s the service, the look & training of the staff, the perfectly designed menus, the décor, and certain oddball fusion styles of food that give it that similar to, but still unique from the ethnic origins from whence it came. Or in that regard, think of the difference in the feel of a Chipotle’s vs. your classic burrito joint like La Pasadita for example.

              With the opening of the Frontera Fresco concept on the 7th floor of Macy’s, and a full line of restaurant salsa’s, chips and cooking ingredients (from chilies to guacamole mix) is the corporate chain feel of anything Frontera really that far behind? I’m thinking not. Quite honestly, I thought quality of food at Frontera Fresco was almost as good as his other two places, but just served in a fast food setting with the more limited menu options…

              Funny, how easily and cleanly they moved it over into a fast food setting.

              1. re: abf005

                Thank you for clarifying your comparison and point of view, abf005.

                I think that the thing to consider is the Topo and Frontera's input into the American food scene is what made possible even the concept of a Frontera Fresco. I do get how it occurred for you, but I still find it hard to accept that the food at Topolobambo was even in the same category of a Frontera Fresco and maybe it's just that what was once unique and groundbreaking about Rick Bayless' work is now commonplace. And if that's true for you or for others, perhaps that's a tribute and a testimony to him.

          3. re: wak

            <He has probably done more than any other individual to bring real Mexican cooking to the US, and every month someone logs on to Chowhound and totally trashes his restaurants.> Many people would disagree with you here, and say that person is Diana Kennedy.

            If Rick Bayless has done this, it is because he has been given the platform to do so. Not because he is the most :qualified."

            1. re: ChefJune

              Diana who? I disagree that Bayless was "given" a platform. He built it himself. Then he used it to bring appreciation of Mexican cuisine to average Americans who formerly thought the enchirito was the pinnacle of the genre. More than that, he has personally inspired and encouraged many Mexican chefs (such as Geno Bahena) to go beyond the typical taqueria fare by creating a market for more sophisticated Mexican cuisine. Here in Chicago there are several higher end Mexican-owned restaurants (such as Sol de Mexico and Fonda del Mar) that are a direct result of Bayless' efforts to encourage local chefs and to educate the public. Julia Child was not the first chef to introduce French cookery to the US, but she was the one who brought it to the masses. Although not nearly as iconic as Ms. Child, Bayless has done the same for Mexican cooking.

              That said, I totally agree with the OP. The dishes at Bayless' restaurants have definitely been modified to suit the tastes of the market, but they have not been "dumbed down". Personally, I am not a great fan of either restaurant. However, they do introduce many diners to a new way of thinking about Mexican cuisine. Hopefully, some of those diners then seek out more "authentic" interpretations of the same dishes from lower-profile venues. It has been many years since I have set foot in one of Mr. Bayless' restaurants, and I may never do so again. Nevertheless, I am glad that they exist, and I appreciate what they and Mr. Bayless have done to broaden the culinary boundries of so many.

              1. re: Roger Spark

                FYI, Diana Kennedy has written some wonderful Mexican cookbooks. The Essential Cuisines of Mexico is one of my favorites. That said, I think Bayless has done much more to spread his enthusiasm for Mexican cooking through the TV shows, personal appearances, restaurants, etc. And from what I can tell, he earned this through hard work, not because anyone gave him a platform.

                1. re: wak

                  Actually, I was being facetious. I know who Diana Kennedy is. My point is that if you randomly asked 10 people who she is, I doubt one person would know the answer. On the other hand, many people know who Rick Bayless is.

          4. The original comment has been removed
            1. In my humble opinion, Topo is one of the worst prix fixe values in the city (second only to the shell of its former self that Arun's has become). My one visit there was wholly mediocre and I see no reason to return.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Helper Monkey

                This thread just makes me sad and tired.

                After my visit to Chez Panisse I was a little disappointed. I guess after all these years I expected more. On the other hand I didn't feel the need to trash Alice Waters or minimize her contribution to California cuisine.

                I hope everyone here finds their perfect eatery and when they return to it after a decade or two it's still "the best". Good Luck.

                1. re: Remoulade

                  Thank you, Remoulade. One of the things I appreciate most about this board is the tolerance and respect usually visible here. I would hate to see it turn into one of the nasty "gotcha" political boards ("you cons!" you libs!").

                  Sometimes good restaurants have bad nights. Sometimes our tastes change.

                  I remember how exciting and forward Louis Szathmary's The Bakery was when it first opened back in the '60s. Beef Wellington! Wow. Somehow I suspect that most of us would now look at it with -- at best -- beamusement for how quaint and out of it it is now. But it's impact was real and part of how we got to where we are today.

              2. Was I overreacting to the hype? Or was it just a bad day at the office for the Bayless Corporation? Are all the awards and glowing reviews justified?

                Here are just a few of the awards that have been bestowed on Mr. Rick Bayless:

                • Best New Chef of 1988, Food and Wine magazine
                • Best American Chef: Midwest 1991, James Beard Foundation
                • National Chef of the Year 1995, James Beard Foundation
                • Chef of the Year 1995, International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP)
                • Best Chef Midwest (CHICAGO) of 2002, James Beard Foundation
                • Who’s Who of American Food and Drink
                • Frontera Grill won Outstanding Restaurant from the James Beard Foundation 2007

                I suppose that anywhere with this kind of buildup to such a dinning experience could never hope to live up to the hype, and my disappointment is unjustified, right?

                Not so! In 1999 after years of hearing about how “great’ the recently shuttered Le Francois was, I finally had the opportunity to dine there. I left satisfied and content that I had ate the most exquisite meal ever. In fact, I felt as if the reviews had not prepared me for just how wonderful the food would really be. To this day, that remains one of my top dining experiences. But, erosion is part of the nature of the restaurant beast, and over time, even Le Francois became a shell of its former self, and I suppose anyone newly experiencing it in the last several years may have felt disappointment over the impressive list of awards, reviews and the strong fan following of that restaurant.

                Now am I saying Topolobampo is in decline? Honestly I don’t know, but I have no issue with being a lone voice in saying that this place did not stand up to my expectations. Perhaps the love and freshness is gone, and I went there too late to experience the “young love” of a restaurant seeking to define itself and “win” every customer, after all the star chef wasn’t even in the house to tend the fire. I suppose after 16 years Topolo could now be considered an older mature Senorita whose birthed one too many children, and no longer has quality time and patience left for the younger newer siblings that wander in to be part of the family…

                It’s a question that I think only the proprietors themselves can answer, are they just in it for the stardom and steady revenue? Or do they want to move the bar up once again as they did in the early 90’s? I know I had high expectations, and I honestly walked in expecting to be blown away by a man with such impeccable credentials.

                My review is not a slam nor is it inappropriate for this forum. If a place is sub-par or doesn't stand up to the hype, don't do the restaurant a favor by not telling your fellow Chowhounders! As you yourselves know, in most cases our quality bar is much higher than the average diners. And by withholding such knowledge, the dining community is not served at all, but in fact is done a disservice. If you don't like/agree with a particular review; write a retort or just move on. I personally read the good and bad on every place that we talk about here and decide for myself if it’s worthy of my dining dollars.

                Thank you for reading my post pro or con- its been a fun thread to follow.

                13 Replies
                1. re: abf005

                  So, if Topolobampo did not meet your expectations, where should I go when I visit Chicago in September for exciting Mexican food? I live in Canada, where there is a near-consensus that there is not any good Mexican food here. So I am probably not too hard to impress, and I would probably think Topolobampo or Frontera Grill was great.

                  However, I have also been checking out Salpicon's website, and I understand that some folks think Platiyo is pretty durn good. What would you recommend, abf005?

                  1. re: anewton

                    If I may butt in here, my top two recommendations at the present time would likely be Sol de Mexico and Xni-Pec.

                    Sol de Mexico is run by a relation of famed former-Frontera Chef, Geno Bahena, and prides itself on a wide variety of hand-crafted moles from Oaxaca. I just visited this restaurant last week with friends and we had an exceptional meal which featured lamb ribs, quail, halibut, sopecitas and echiladas Potosinas. NB The restaurant is BYOB.



                    Xni-Pec is another excellent family-owned establishment, and their focus, as the name might suggest, is on Yucatecan cuisine. I have dined at this restaurant several times this year, and it continues to amaze and delight my friends and me.


                    Good Luck to you,

                    1. re: Erik M

                      It's interesting that the Mexican places you'd rather eat at are places that seem to have come in Bayless's wake.

                      It's sort of human nature to take pot shots at those on top. It's also really hard to live up to such huge public expectations.

                      1. re: pgokey

                        What you say is a simple statement of fact, not a reflection of personal politics or ill-will on my part. For the record, I like Rick Bayless and his restaurants a great deal, and I continue to visit both Frontera and Topolo on a semiannual/annual basis. However, the cooking (and service/hospitality)--as it is represented at the two establishments I listed above--is generally more pleasing to me at the present time. At any rate, the two establishments I listed above are the sorts of places where I continue to find newness, knowledge and treasure, and that excites me greatly. I am so rarely afforded the same opportunity at Rick Bayless' restaurants anymore. [Viva Rick Bayless.]


                        1. re: Erik M

                          I heartily agree with Erik M (and Rogers Park) regarding Sol de Mexico and Xni-Pec. I just wrote a long post about the two places, and tried to use the new "Places" feature to link to their addresses. Unfortunately, in editing the information for Xni-Pec, the entire post was lost!

                          I'll just repeat the main thing: a scanned in copy of Sol de Mexico's menu (as of last week, it changes regularly) may be found in this link:

                          Anyone interested in excellent regional Mexican cuisine should definitely visit both Sol de Mexico and Xni-Pec.

                          1. re: Amata

                            Thanks for the scan of the menu, Amata. I see that the rack of lamb now comes with a cascabel sauce instead of the mole negro (that I raved about below). I can't wait to try it. Too bad the only item served with the mole negro is boneless chicken breast (the one meat I will not eat), oh well. Other than that, the new menu is very enticing. It looks like they have added some interesting entrées. Even though SdM is a fair distance from my house, I really need to get there more often. Of course, if it were in a more convenient location, the prices would be 50% higher, and it would, no doubt, lose some of its charm. To any visitors considering making the trip from downtown, IMHO, experiencing Sol de Mexico is certainly worth the cab-fare.

                            1. re: Roger Spark

                              Why is boneless chicken breast the ONE meat you won't eat? I know people whose only meat they'll eat is that. I can't imagine a more benign meat. By itself, it's boring. In a good sandwich, mole or salsa, yum.

                              1. re: pgokey

                                When you remove the skin and bone from a chicken breast, you also remove all the moisture and flavor. I find it to be dry and tasteless like stale wonder bread. In fact, if it is just for sopping up sauce, I think I would prefer the stale wonder bread (like at Harold's). I would much rather have a half-chicken on the bone in mole. What really bugs me is when places take a recipe that normally calls for whole chicken and substitute skinless, boneless chicken breast, like a chicken breast vesuvio or chicken breast cacciatore.

                                1. re: Roger Spark

                                  To each their own, I guess. There *are* plenty of places - and home-cooks do it to (myself included) - that make boneless skinless chicken breast that's not dry or flavorless. You really don't like chicken breast sandwiches? Really?

                                  You're right, though, that leaving it on the bone is better. If it works for the recipe.

                      2. re: Erik M

                        wow! those sound like awesome places. i love a good mole. erik, how do you find out about places like that to begin with? do you search metromix to see what's new? just curious how the first person to find them like you finds them...

                      3. re: anewton

                        As to where I specifically would go if prompted to pick one place? Wow thats tough, since my taste for Mexican food is usually more traditional, basic and humble. I tend to hound every hole in the wall Taqueria in the city on all the way up into Waukegan! Which are a very different than Topolo.

                        Since both Erik M & Roger Spark both suggest Sol de Mexico, I will undoubtedly go with that as my next "high end Mexican" selection myself!

                        Lately my taste has been for the Latino Nuevo style as opposed to just Mexican and with that being said, May St Cafe and Carnivalle offer a great experience. Cuatro is also in this same league as well.

                        Roger Spark has never steered me wrong and though his numerous posts has shown an amazing knowledge of Chicago Latin food in general. If we are fortunate to have him chime in on a rec, go with it.

                        Remember, I never said Topolo or Frontera were bad, they just didn't meet my expectations based on the hype. If you have had your mind set on going, in order to experience this place, I would feel horrible if you skipped it just based on my opinion. Especially after traveling here to experience Mr. Bayless' place, which is unique and interesting in its own right, the art, decor/ambiance and service are all noteworthy.

                        1. re: abf005

                          Thanks for the vote of confidence, I am not sure it is justified. I would definitely try Sol de Mexico if you haven't been there. The lamb chops in mole negro that Erik mentioned are absolutely exquisite. Fonda del Mar also serves this dish, but SdM's version is the best. In fact, most of the sauces at Sol de Mexico really shine, especially when combined with the fresh hand made tortillas. The only complaint I might have is that some of the sauces are too refined. The green mole for instance, is very tasty, but lacks the crunchy grittiness of my favorite versions. Still, it is definitely worth sampling.

                          Sol de Mexico serves many smaller tapas sized dishes, in addition to several entrees. For two people we usually order 3 small plates and then split the lamb ribs in mole negro (too good to miss). That gives us a chance to sample a variety of sauces. If you ask, they will usually bring out little bowls of mole to taste with the delicious fluffy tortillas.

                          Man, I need to go back soon.

                      4. re: abf005

                        Just a note on the Le Français comparison. I ate there a number of times during the 90s and usually found it disappointing (not bad, but not at the top). But maybe this was because I had a fair amount of experience of French restaurants, including Le Français under Banchet (which was tremendous). Conversely, I might have a different view of Topolo if I'd spent a lot of time in Mexico, etc. What I think this shows is that you have to think on two levels in evaluating a restaurant. First, how does it rate on relatively objective factors, such as quality of and respect for ingredients, subtlety and complexity of sauces and seasoning, etc., etc. Second, how does it rate in comparison with other places that I've experienced. If I've been to ten great restaurants of the same type, my comparative judgment of where I dined last night may be rather low, but that doesn't mean that the restaurant isn't really good--there may just be, given my experience, a very fast track. This distinction is particularly important in making recommendations to others, as we so often do on this board. I think it's wrong to recommend against a restaurant because it falls short on the second level of how it compares with my other experiences (although it's certainly fair to point this out). But it is right to recommend against it if it falls short on the first level of objective quality.