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Frontera Fresco Report (San Francisco)

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Wow. what a major disappointment. Probably my biggest eating disappointment in the past year or so. at least....which could have had something to do with my expectations being WAAYYY too high...but still....

Haven't seen any reports yet on the food here, but a few posts have speculated whether Rick Bayless has just put his name on this place, intended for quick meals, which the menu calls 'Gourmet Fresh Mexican'...or whether he was going to really put effort into it. Well, I don't know, but it would take more than just his effort to make this somewhere I'd want to go back to...

but I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning and give my full report, such as it is:

My teenage niece, A, and I have a tradition to hit the Union Square shops and let her pick out her own Christmas/birthday present, since her birthday falls just after the New Year. We had to postpone when the big storm hit on her birthday, but finally today was the day: sunny and crisp, a beautiful day in the city, and since she is a suburb girl she really looks forward to soaking in the big city ambiance...after a morning admiring the Westfield Mall and picking out a teenage suitable outfit, I needed to rest and refuel and hear all about her latest boyfriend. She was game for Mexican, so this was my big chance to check out Frontera Fresco, and we made the trek down to Macy's basement.

We arrived just after noon; it was busy, but no problem to grab a table for two right away. You order at the counter and they give you a number and bring your food.

First disappointment: yes, I know this is intended as being just a step above a fast food place, but the menu still was smaller and less innovative than I imagined. There are a total of four tortas ($7.50 each); four huaraches ($6.95 each); four quesadillas with a small salad each ($7.25); a taco salad with choice of grilled 'steak' (I will explain the quotes in a minute), chicken, or shrimp ($6.95); chipotle chicken or sweet corn and green chile tamales ($2.95 each); gaucamole ($1.50); chips ($1.25); tortilla soup or corn and poblano chowder ($3.50); and a green salad ($3.50; add grilled chicken for a dollar more).

and that's it. no tacos, no sopes, and certainly no enchiladas or mole or any such. There is a version of a torta cubana but I wouldn't get one's hopes up.....

To drink there are several Mexican beers, red or white wine by the glass, standard soft drinks, and three varieties of limeade. Desserts consist of chocolate pecan pie bar or a key lime square.

There are three types of salsas (jalapeno/cilantro; chipotle; and tomatillo), and you get one very small container of salsa free with your meal. Not sure what they would do or charge if you asked for more than one. I didn't notice that on the menu until after I ordered, and I was not asked which type I preferred. However, after hearing someone at the next cash register ask their customer for their preference, I told the young woman running our register that we would like the jalapeno cilantro salsa. She looked startled by my request, and said she "would let them know" but made no written note of my preference anywhere. Sure enough, what came to our table was the chipotle salsa. It was only slightly hot (despite being designated as the hottest of the three salsas on the menu) and nothing special. (but then, I am not a chipotle fan). There is no salsa bar or any such place to get more salsa; I suppose you'd have to wait in the ordering line and again, don't know if or what they would charge you.

A ordered a coke, I asked for a mango limeade. Both A and I agreed that the limeade was too sweet, though it did have good mango flavor. I couldn't really detect much lime.

A had wanted tacos, so her disappointment also started early, but settled for a chipotle chicken torta. I got the 'grilled steak torta', and a sweet corn and green chile tamale. Tortas are advertised as being served with 'avocado, Frontera (copyright sign here!) black bean spread, dressed greens, pickled tomato, and 'smoky chipotle or cilantro crema'.

The food did come quickly. No complaints about service, other than the salsa incident.

But my heart sank when I saw those tortas: They are on panini bread...pressed thin and grilled. actually, since fillings were cold, I am not sure if the sandwiches were grilled, or just the bread. Oh heck, I guess a bolillo would be too much to ask? As for the fillings, A asked for hers without 'pickled tomato' , probably a wise move since it was really just sun dried tomato (and I thought its flavor was somewhat overpowering.) Both sandwiches had unadvertised but not very spicy jalapenos. As for the 'bean spread', I could see it but not taste it. The avocado was in some type of dressing, and between that, the 'crema' and the dressing on the greens, the sandwich tasted mostly of dressing. Frankly, I think that 'crema' was mayo. Certainly tasted like mayo. Couldn't taste any cilantro. Biggest disappointment, however, was the 'steak' on mine: it was sliced very, very thin, and I don't think it was steak at all: it looked and tasted like pre-sliced deli roast beef. and not much of it at that. A's chicken was a bit better: at least you could taste that it was chicken.

The tortas come with no sides for $7.50, other than the container of salsa. They are large, however, though I was ready to quit after just a few bites....

Now, the sweet corn and green chile tamale wasn't bad. Of course, for just under $3 for an average sized tamale, it should be pretty good. The best part was the bit of tomatillo salsa on top: spicy, complex and much better than whatever came with our sandwiches. It does have a goat cheese filling: a bit unusual for a tamale, but not bad. Overall: nothing special, and I would much rather have the tamales at All-Star for what, half (?) the price, but it was the only thing I tasted that I would order again if stuck there in a pinch...

We saw the taco salad going to other tables: it was big, but looked to me to be mostly romaine lettuce with dressing, and none too appealing. Also noticed some quesadillas going out: they were made with standard flour tortillas and looked like something you could find at a TGIFriday's. No lovely hand made DF style quesadillas to be had here....

Total for lunch before tip: about $24, and while the food is filling, it is just this side of tasteless. Doubt if I could be persuaded to go back. Unexciting menu, and poor to middling execution.

Post script: we wandered back through Westfield Center after lunch, and A was captivated by the see-through windows to the kitchen at Out the Door. I had never noticed those: on the mall side: you peak through flowing water at the chefs hard at work on the wok line....sort of made me wish I had taken A there instead....or to somewhere that she definitely couldn't find in the suburbs....bottom line: we could have been anywhere at Frontera Fresco: silly me, hoping for a bit of Mexico off of Union Square....

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    Frontera Fresco
    170 OFarrell St, San Francisco, CA

    1. Thanks for the detailed report. I'm a big Bayless fan, and am so disappointed about this experience of yours! Some friends of mine ate at Frontera Grill in Chicago and loved it, so I was looking forward to Frontera Fresco until now.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Claudette

        I've never been to either of Bayless' Chicago restaurants, but do have them on my list for next time I am in that city. I am fairly sure from everything I've read that this place bears absolutely no resemblance to his restaurants. I certainly hope it doesn't. Would love to hear if anyone has a better experience, but it would take a pretty big chorus of 'thumbs ups' to entice me to give it another chance!

        1. re: susancinsf

          While I wasn't particularly wowed by Topolobampo (and would recommend going out to the hood to check out Sol de Mexico instead)... both Frontera & Topolo are in another universe compared to your description of Frontera Fresco.

          I haven't tried Fresco but haven been suckered into one of the extremely mediocre & overpriced Frontera Sauces... your description is exactly what I would expect.

      2. Wonderful post! Very detailed, which is so helpful. I am bummed to read about your experience, though. I respect Bayless so much, but the problems you described sound like more than wrinkles to be ironed out over the next few weeks. I mean, if you don't offer tacos and your beef is sliced Arby's thin...

        And I agree - I'm not a member of the I Kneel to The Slanted Door cult, but Out the Door is quiet exceptional for a "food court" establishment.

        1. It sounds like you were there on the same day you posted (1/12)? Did you actually see Bayless since, according to the announcement below, he made an appearance for grand opening celebrations? Sorry to hear about your major disappointment. I ate at Frontera Grill in Chicago about 10 yrs. ago and remember it fondly. Fresco sounds nothing like it.

          From Macy's website:

          01/12/08
          2pm Meet Rick Bayless
          Chef Rick Bayless, a member of the Macy?s Culinary Council and owner of Chicago?s Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Frontera Frescao will be in The Cellar to celebrate the opening of our very own Frontera Fresco . Get ready for authentic Mexican street food, made with the freshest ingredients and served fast! Enjoy a sneak peek, a taste and pick up a copy of one of Rick?s cookbooks, or Great Gatherings, the exclusive Macy?s Culinary Council cookbook. He?ll sign it for you.* Be sure to get there early, Fontera gift to be given to the first 50 guests in line.**

          Saturday, January 12th, 2pm

          *While supplies last and time permits. ?While supplies last. ? All events subject to change or cancellation without notice.
          ** Line to open at 1:30pm. No purchase necessary. Individuals who purchase either a Rick Bayless or Great Gatherings cookbook will be placed in the VIP line.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Carb Lover

            authentic Mexican street food?! I am pretty much speechless...what I had was much more Chevy's than Mexican street food....only Chevy's is much, much better. Actually, maybe somewhere like Arby's (or TGIFridays) really is a better comparison, since those tortas were unlike anything I've ever had in Mexico.

            anyway, yes, we were there yesterday, and I guess we missed Bayless by about an hour...I didn't see any evidence of anyone waiting then, indeed while it was almost full when we arrived, it had emptied out by the time we left (we did linger a while to share family gossip and to let A vent some teenage angst. The space is small, but fairly comfortable). Not sure what a 'sneak peek' means: the place is open and you can see into it from the shopping areas in the Cellar (as is true with the other restaurants down there).

            1. re: Carb Lover

              I attended the Rick Bayless event at Macy's Cellar housewares department (just across the way from the Frontera Fresco eatery). He told the crowd he kept the Fresco menu limited so he could have some "control of the quality" of the food away from the Chicago area. Bayless said he is not ambitious to spread his restaurants to locations where he cannot have hands-on control. I guess you can say the sneak peek was his demo (about 40 minutes total) of making salsa, guacamole and huarache. The crowd got to taste some food samplings, including the Cheese/Corn tamale with salsa verde (I'm not a fan of goat cheese but it was not pungent; corn inside looked like it was the frozen variety), guacamole and blue corn chips, and prickly pear drink. I thought the samples were only so-so; I've made tastier Mexican food, especially the guacamole. So, I guess the free tastings were a better deal than actually eating at Frontera Fresco. No wonder they gave us a coupon for free chips or a drink at the Fresco, to lure us in. It certainly does not make out to be like his Frontera Grill and obviously doesn't come close to par.
              I did have to wonder, why was San Francisco chosen since it's so far from Chicago. I didn't think to ask that question.

              1. re: honeyb

                So sorry to hear these reports. Had hoped that by having a limited menu in street food style, some quality could be achieved, guess not.

            2. Thanks for the curiosity report and saving the pain. Sounds like Bayless got a sign, show and consult deal from a big corp. The menu sounds like a popped version of fast food, or at effort at it.

              2 Replies
              1. re: ML8000

                I was at the fancy food show in San Diego today and spoke to some of his people at the frontera booth. I asked them if Bayless would ever consider opening another Frontera Grill or Topolobampo - to which they said never because Bayless "Needs to be in the Kitchen to supervise."

                Brace your self Angelenos - because you are the next locale of a Fresco.

                1. re: kare_raisu

                  Interesting. Of the 5 or 6 times I've been to Frontera Grill or Topolobampo (combined), I've seen him there almost every time. I've never been disappointed with either anytime so it's too bad to hear that Fresco is such a let down. I can understand though, especially seeing how bad most of the airport/shopping mall Wolfgang Puck places are.

              2. I've tried this a few times since it opened and I agree that it's not anything special. It's nice to have the option compared to the other food court options at Macy's and Union Square, but it's not some place I would go regularly.

                I thought it was odd that they didn't have burritos or tacos. Anyone know the story behind that?

                I actually didn't mind the tortas. I had the Cubana and it was actually pretty good, mostly because I do like grilled sandwiches. They use really good pork and bacon.

                I didn't like the flat breads. It was chewy and not very appetizing.

                I did really love the corn tamale, and that's probably something I would get often, 1) because it's good and 2) because it's only $2.50, which is a good value because you really do end up spending at least $8 for lunch if you get the other items. I can get filled with just that one sweet corn tamale.

                The service is very good, though, but it is hit or miss if they remember to ask you about what kind of salsa you want.

                Here's some photos from my past visits: http://singleguychef.blogspot.com/200...

                2 Replies
                1. re: singleguychef

                  I have a copy of the menu that I took with me, and it says $2.95 for the tamale, which I am pretty sure is what I was charged (have prices risen already?).... I don't consider that a good value (it is of average size) but it is better tasting than the tortas.....

                  1. re: susancinsf

                    Oh, you're right. It's a misstype on my part. It is $2.95. It is your typical tamale size, and it is just one. I guess I felt I could just eat one for lunch and be fine (I think because the goat cheese makes it feel more filling) as opposed to spending like $7+ for the huarraches or quesadillas with salads. So I was just thinking in comparison to the other items, it feels like a better deal (also because it tastes better).

                2. Tried this place for the first time today for lunch. What a disappointment. I ordered the chipotle chicken torta (obviously, I had forgotten about susancinsf's review), and found it bland, bland, bland. I ate half of it, and left the other half on the table, even though I was still hungry. I ordered it with the cilantro crema. I couldn't taste the crema, cilantro or black bean spread. The chicken was nice and moist, but it was completely overwhelmed by the bread.

                  1. I have to agree with all the naysayers here. I stopped by when they first opened as I'd been having a craving for tortilla soup. Sadly, I didn't even finish it, it was so disappointing.

                    1. They have tacos now, in five or six varieties. They do not seem to have made the permanent menu behind the register yet, but are advertised in front. I tried the ones with grilled/roasted vegetables.

                      I will add it to the sweet-corn tamale as one of now two things I can enjoy eating here for a quick lunch while shopping. I liked the small, fresh sliced chunks of avocado in the tacos. You get two soft tacos, and they are loaded well enough to be full bites while handheld without spilling out.

                      They did not seem too greasy either like the salad, chips and sandwich here that I once (and never again) ordered. The tacos are less than the sandwiches, but more than the tamales, over $5 I think.

                      1. I went back today with my family and I have to say that I don't think it's a bad option compared to what else is in the area for the price, especially if you are craving a taco. They do have tacos now, as others reported above, but they are $3.75 each with no chips. The chips are $3.50 with two salsas. One salsa was a tomatillo salsa with a sweet finish that I liked, albeit it was gringo style. There was also a red salsa with canned tomatoes that was fine.

                        We ordered a cochinita pibil torta (about $7.95) and it was served on a bolillo type roll that tasted slightly like sourdough. The torta had the marinated purple onions inside but it would have been nice to have a side of the onions. We also order two cochinita tacos and I thought it was odd that they had cheese in them since I don't think you eat cochinita and cheese (kind of like how in Mexico you don't mix carnitas with sour cream). Neverthelss, the tacos were decently made with two regular size tortillas, marinated onions and slice of avocado. A little more meat in the taco would have been appreciated given the price. Overall, not a bad option if you are in Union Square and looking for a quick meal.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Mari

                          thanks for the update, Mari. Doubt if I could be persuaded to go back, but it does sound as though the torta roll is a vast improvement over that panini bread...