Trip report -- Frontera, Xel-ha, Maxwell, Clark
We visited Chicago for a week for the first time in nearly a decade, and ate much better than I had expected when we booked the trip. We'll be back much sooner next time. I'll post a series of reports.
We first ate at Frontera in the late '80's, after having purchased and used Bayless's first cookbook, and had dinner at Topolobampo in '98. I don't begrduge Bayless his success, which he deserves, even if he's made some dubious choices along the way (e.g. Burger King, some of his later cookbooks). But I was also a Springsteen fan back in 1975, and I get the same feeling with him as I do with Bayless: they're not aiming at me any more.
I got on the phone at 8:30am to make a Frontera reservation, but by the time I got through, only a 9:30pm seating was available. "When do I have to show up?" I asked, and was told, "You don't have to be here when the doors open to get a table." We disregarded that, showed up at 5:30 as the line started filing in, and had a 45-minute wait. The place wasn't full, but they were staggering seatings for the sake of the kitchen. Sensible, but frustrating.
The meal was good, but not great. Some dishes were a surprise, like the salbutes with smoked heritage turkey; some, like the sopes and the lomitos de puerco, delivered as expected; some, like the codzitos negros and one of the trio of ceviches, looked better than they tasted. The cochinita pibil special was fine. But the tacos al carbon, a revelation on our first visit, were a disappointment. The cajeta on the crepes we ordered off the Topolobampo menu was too runny, though it tasted right. Service was friendly and efficient considering the bustle and noise. My kids were surprised at the number of people eating hunk-of-meat dinners.
Xel-ha was low on my list, but due to logistics, we found ourselves in River North at 7:30 on a Saturday night without a reservation, and could walk in. We probably could have done better. Only the cochinita pibil was an unqualified success, though the plantain empanadas were at least tasty. Panuchos de pato had some of the most deracinated duck I have ever had (you could have convinced me it was shredded chicken breast, and maybe it was). The chile relleno was underroasted and the rather dull filling lacked cohesion, so it fell out with the effort of cutting through the pepper. The kids took a look at the dessert menu and opted to go get something at the nearby Whole Foods instead.
The taco de mole rojo from Rubi's in the Maxwell Street Market was probably my Chicago Mexican highlight, though the al pastor was a close second, and the kids liked their huitlacoche quesadilla. Surely these people are cooking somewhere during the week? Fresh churros (natural) from the truck were also divine. All the seats at Tito's were taken (this was about 10:30am) and my attempts to get served while standing were unsuccessful, but I probably was too full at this point anyway. Only the horchata from a random stand was flawed, being overly sweet and with a strong chemical flavour of artificial vanilla. The kids were disappointed at not being able to find more aguas from fruits in season.
We also went up to the Clark Street Festival, which was a nice glimpse of a neighbourhood celebration. There was an al pastor spit at the El Rey del Taco stand, so I ordered two, and washed them down with a Goose Island Honker's Ale, which was perfectly satisfying for the time and place. My daughter found shrimp empanadas she liked, and there was free roasted corn. --PR
thank you for the outstanding trip report (I see there is already a second installment posted). Additional data points on Frontera are always welcome, as well as the frank assessment of Xel-Ha. There is actually a much better Yucatec place, Xni-pec, but it's located far off the usual visitors' circuit, in Cicero.
But I'm really, really glad you all made it to the Maxwell Street Market, and more specifically to Rubi's! As far as I know, the Rubi's people do not have a restaurant during the week (someone please correct me if I'm wrong). That stand is indeed terrific.
I look forward to reading the rest of your trip reports.
3755 Grand Boulevard, Brookfield, IL 60513
Thanks. I greatly appreciate the copious amounts of useful information I found on this board, and these reports are but inadequate payback.
Xni-Pec was on my long list, but it never fit, logistically. If we had squeezed in one more upscale Mexican place, it would probably have been Salpicon. --PR
It is great that you took the time to visit Maxwell Street and the Clark Street Festival. We usually don't get many tourists visiting Rogers Park, but there is a big variety of good ethnic restaurants in the area. El Rey's pastor spit is always a festival favorite. I hope your kids got to sample the creamy fruit popscicles from Paleteria Monarca. They are a wonderful summertime treat made with real fruit.
re: Roger Spark
Alas, we missed the popsicles -- I'm not sure how, the kids usually have an eye for these things. We probably wouldn't have made it to Rogers Park at all except that we were already nearby for Pasticceria Natalina. It was one of those days where we just wander from snack to snack. --PR