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rick bayless.

worth a visit? deb and i are nyc mavens and have some business in your city for a mere two nights a week from monday. i'm really ticked that i won't catch a baseball game, see the inside of a superior museum or get a chance to fully utilize my aia guide (yes, i'm a fan of your architecture).

i was thinking a bayless restaurant for one night and a pizza place/finger food joint for the other. does this make sense? we'll be staying at the w in city central. i'm a mass-transit fan but taxis are ok.

thanks in advance.


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  1. Frontera wouldn't be my first choice, although its not bad. Do you have your heart set on Mexican? What do you like?

    3 Replies
    1. re: wak

      Second the non-recommendation for frontera...Food not worth the wait. Flavors just not very good.

      1. re: wak

        i have a bayless cookbook and want to calibrate how recipes should really taste.

        1. re: wak

          Depends on if you want real Mexican food or pseudo-mexican. If you want the former, then Frontera is the place to go.

        2. Sounds good to me. I fly out from Califonia yearly to eat at Frontera/Topolo. The food is great. The only time I've had a bad experience was after a big pancake/omelet brunch. I didn't have enough room for all five courses at Topolo. I have high expectations and they've been satisfied many times over the last ten years.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Romanmk

            high praise, indeed.
            anything on the menu that makes you happy a few months later?

            1. re: steve h.

              Things that suprised me the most I can remember clearly even years later: A soup of pureed carrots and smoked mushrooms with crema. Sopa de hongos at Topolo. The amazing queso anejo sprinkled on top of some fried beans that tasted more intense than anything I've found around here.

              I go to compare flavors too. I tried the enchiladas de mole poblano last time. I'd say the flavor was equally spicy hot and bitter with chocolate and sweet undertones. More bitter from the chile than I expected. About dead center between overly sweet or overly harsh versions of chile sauces I've had elsewhere. This experience also confirmed my feeling that I had probably overtoasted chiles in the past. And now I have a better handle on how to season those sauces.

            2. re: Romanmk

              haha, romanmk, you sound like me. when i turned 18, i took a spontaneous birthday road trip from DC to chicago for the sole purpose of dinner at topolo. had fish wrapped in a banana leaf and the best guac i've ever eaten. to date, that's one of my favorite experiences, ever. was terribly upset (should have done my research!) when i was in town monday night, but they were not open for dinner. i would have stayed longer had i known when booking flights!

            3. Many opinions on this board, but I vote absolutely.

              Bayless' Frontera and Topolobampo pretty much introduced the subtleties of gourmet regional Mexican to Chicago, if not the the country. I happen to think they've been come so iconic that many people's expectations are disappointed. You might love it, you might be disappointed, but it wiill certainly give you your own stories to tell. Form your own opinion, but do try it.

              1 Reply
              1. re: chicgail

                i will. what's your best food memory from frontera?

              2. I've been to Topolobambo repeatedly over many years, for both lunch and dinner, and have never been disapporinted. The food has the same sort of subtlety and complexity I find in other highest-level Chicago restaurants. It seems to me that criticisms of Rick Bayless often come from people who have some specific conception of how Mexican food should taste that his restaurants don't match. There's also a puzzling tendency to treat Frontera and Topolo as essentially the same. Frontera is very good but at a distinct level below Topolo, which is truly extraordinary, in food, atmosphere, and service.

                2 Replies
                1. re: gymp

                  that was my undersanding. thanks for your thoughts.

                  1. re: steve h.

                    Count me in as a very satisfied Topolobampo customer. If it were only closer!

                2. I agree that Frontera Grill / Topolobampo are a fine choice, and so is pizza.

                  Keep in mind that Frontera Grill doesn't accept reservations (except for a few same-day reservations first thing in the morning when they open at 8:30 am), and Topolobampo does (on opentable.com too). I've heard you can order off either menu at either place.

                  For pizza, I recommend the double-crust "stuffed" pizza of Giordano's. Not only is it my personal favorite of all the Chicago pizza places, but they have a location a block from the W, at 223 W. Jackson (312-583-9400). Order ahead to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes for your pizza to bake; you'll find the menu on their website at www.giordanos.com

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    thanks for the info. the pizza rec is mighty interesting. is there a decent bar in the area?

                  2. As you can tell, the locals are divided on Bayless, but I recommend checking it out just to see for yourself. If you do end up going to one of his joints on Clark Street and you like good beer, be sure to stop in at the Clark Street Ale House a couple of blocks north - outstanding selection and a classic old wooden bar.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: jbentley4

                      clark street ale house is now on the radar. thanks!

                      1. re: jbentley4

                        I agree - check it out and decide for yourself. Rick Bayless won the james beard award - so, it's not like inedbile!

                      2. thanks all.
                        deb and i will stick to the bayless plan for one meal. the pizza/bar/finger-food destination is still up in the air. i'm hoping to return september sometime when i can better enjoy your city.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: steve h.

                          Please post back your thoughts on the experience.

                          As to myself, I fall in the camp of a Chicago Hispanic who intensely disliked both Frontera Freco (the fast food version of Frontera Grill in Macy's) & Topolobampo. But I think you should try it for yourself to form your own opinion, and when you return again in September perhaps we can steer you in a different direction if your interested.

                          1. re: abf005

                            i will. we fly in on the 20th so expect some thoughts /comments no later than the end of next week.

                        2. If Frontera or Topolabampo are too packed, try Salpicon on Wells Street in Old Town. The chef; Pricilla Satkoff from Mexico CIty used to work for Rick Bayless. Great food, great margaritas, and fun neighborhood for after dinner exploration.

                          1 Reply
                          1. Not adding much other than a vote for Bayless and his spots. I just don't understand the haters. It is really great amazing stuff and still one of my favs in the city. He has a real dedication to understanding fesh authentic flavors and bringing them to this city.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Chargenda

                              I've been to both places many times on visits from NY. To me, Frontera is what many people think of as "Mexican" food-only much better. Many people don't realize or recognize that Topolobompo is truly what a, for example native from Mexico City who is used to fine dining would find at home; so many Americans appear to be confused or disappointed at seeing the real thing-only a different genre. I've never been disappointed at either place.

                              1. re: markabauman

                                I am from Mexico City and the biggest Mexican snob on the Chowhound... here is my opinion of Topolobampo (from a single visit)....

                                > Its far better executed than any upscale/midscale Mexican restaurant I have been to in NYC that should be a plus right there (part of the reason is that I think Chicago is more strategically located for sourcing quality ingredients used in Mexican cuisine... some NYC restaurants will use lemon & parsley in the Ceviche!... and that just misses the point completely... but again I think its because of availability issues)

                                > Topolobampo IS one of the best Mexican restaurants in the U.S.... no doubt. However, as a fan of Bayless & a saavy Mexico City native... I was dissappointed with Topolo's execution because I kept comparing to restaurants in Mexico City or Puebla etc.,... my impression is that it wasn't necessarily the kitchens fault... but looking around at the crowd I got the vibe (and yes I am stereotyping) that the typical Topolo diner isn't ready for the more full flavored, assertive yet balanced & rounded flavors of true Mexican cuisine. I found that it was similar to other high end restaurants in Chicago in that it delivered succulent, tasty food with great texture & presentation but ultimately fell short on flavor complexity & edgy-ness.

                                > Finally... Bayless alumni have started a handful of restaurants in Chicago... I've eaten at Sol de Mexico (run by Geno Bahena's mother... and a contributor to Bayless' books & menu)... and quite honestly the food was better executed there (again based on a single experience)... the Quail in Chipotle sauce was significantly better than the Duck Breast in Guasmole at Topolo.

                            2. I enjoyed my one visit to Frontera for lunch a couple of months ago. the food, and service was excellent, & I was very impressed witht the selection of tequila, and the tequila filghts offered.

                              1. Slightly off topic, but can anyone remind me of the caribbean restaurant across from frontera. Had a very good meal there a couple months ago.

                                2 Replies
                                1. just back from chicago and i want to thank you all for your help.

                                  sitting on the tarmac at lga for over an hour meant we arrived tired, hungry and late monday evening. after check-in, i asked for walking directions to giordano's on jackson. five minutes later we were ordering beer for me, wine for deb and a small stuffed pie with sausage. wait time for the pie is 30 minutes plus so we ordered a starter of fried calamari.

                                  drinks arrive and i start to take in the room: high ceiling; three distinct, cavernous spaces; and flat panel tv's, lots of them, all appropriately muzzled by that wonderful closed-caption magic. i have the bears-colts game to my left and the kc-sox game to my right. i'm pretty happy now.

                                  calamari arrives and its pretty generic stuff. neither good nor bad, just something to tide us over until the main course arrives. the portion is quite generous and could easily serve 2-4 people. i hadn't eaten all day so i wolfed it all down in less than 15 minutes.

                                  pizza arrives and it's a thing of beauty: tasty crust (sweeter than our east-coast stuff); good-quality sauce; very good sausage; and copious amounts of cheese. we like this place.

                                  tuesday was a busy day so we arrived at frontera grill at prime dining time with no reservation. hostess said wait time for a table was 90 minutes. we wander into the bar to figure out next steps. deb shouldered her way through the crowd and ordered two mezcal margaritas on the rocks. wow! incredible drink. we stay.

                                  two sips into my drink, a table in the bar area opened up. deb grabbed it and called for the waiter. a trio of ceviches to share, marinated skirt steak for deb and the goat entree for me. all flavors were crisp and interesting. nothing was dark, muddled or over-spiced. i suspect the kitchen spends a lot of time making things seem simple. well done.

                                  all-in-all, frontera grill is a worthy destination. the place is a scene so avoid it like the plague if you have a hard time with noise, crowds and uncertain table availability. go if you enjoy good booze, good food and jocular waiters. lots of spanish being spoken in the bar area (a good thing in a mexican joint). control freaks will not have a good time here. i did.

                                  travel notes: bayless and his pretty companion were on my flight from lga to ord... breakfast at the w is surprisingly good... lunch at giordano's (solo at the bar) is really satisfying. frosty mugs of draft heineken, personal pizza and a barkeep who knows her stuff. nice. a pleasant change from the family-oriented main dining area.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: steve h.

                                    Thanks for the report back and glad you enjoyed your visit. I hope you got to look at a few pieces of architecture walking to and from the restaurants, at least!

                                    1. re: Amata

                                      i lucked out. my appointment tuesday morning was at tribune tower (great gothic). when the meeting was over, i marched up the magnificent mile to the wrigley building at the bend in the chicago river. under the michigan avenue bridge i spotted a tour boat (wendella tours) and booked passage on their one-hour chicago river architecture tour. it blew me away! you have a beautiful city.

                                  2. The food used to be great. Bayless used to be gracious. In my experience, both of that has changed.

                                    There are lots of great Mexican places in Chicago. Some of them are even owned and operated by Mexicans! I'd pick something else if I were you.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: ChefJune

                                      i enjoyed my brief stay in chicago. two nights is hardly enough time for me to compose informed opinions. i'll be back.

                                      1. re: ChefJune

                                        frontera was pretty cool. so much on the menu that sounded worthwhile. looking forward to a white linen, bayless experience down the road. i'll report back before the end of the year.

                                        edit note: sorry. this was intended for brb. i must have done something wrong.

                                      2. I'm really baffled by the negativity surrounding Rick Bayless, who I believe remains one of the most prominent food personalities in Chicago. He continues to bring fine Mexican cuisine to Chicago and personally, I find him to be not only very approachable but very professional. Are Frontera/Topolobampo my favorite Mexican restaurants in Chicago? Maybe not (on some nights yes), but he is always striving to bring an authentic taste of Mexico to Chicago, and he is also responsible for much of the interest in Mexican food (especially upscale Mexican food) in Chicago. People sometimes forget that both Priscila Satkoff and Geno Bahena (just to name a couple) both started at Frontera. He is also someone who is never satisfied with his last meal, but is always attempting something new and better. Simply put, while there are a number of Mexican restaurants that I would highly recommend, I would not steer a Chicago visitor away from Frontera/Topolobampo . . . especially one who has spent considerable time with one of Bayless' cookbooks and wants to find out what his food is really like.

                                        1. I haven't been to Frontera or Topolabompa in years, and was never overly impressed. I've had much better experiences at Scalpion and Adobo Grill

                                          Speaking of ceviches- I recently dined at De LaCosta- yummy!

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: blondie60614

                                            silly airpot stuff: bayless and his pretty companion showed up at lga after i did. the seats at the gate were full. deb and i stood tall. bayless and his companion squatted on the floor. he plugged in his ear buds and fired up his computer. seemed like a serious business guy with no pretensions. made me want to try his restaurant.

                                            1. re: blondie60614

                                              adobo grill?! Now, that is some mediocre dining...I have been a few times and it is good, but doesn't come close to Bayless, in my book.