Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Chicago Area >
Jun 2, 2008 03:42 PM


I'm a native Texan currently living in Austin and planning a trip to Chicago later this month. I am looking forward to all the food--but keep feeling perplexed when Mexican Food is mentioned as a must-eat there. Is the Mexican Food in Chicago similar to what you can find in central Texas? if so, I will probably skip it and spend my precious meals eating cuisines that are rarer to Central Texas. If the Mexican is worth seeking out, though, please let me know what makes it unique, with suggestions on where to go via public transportation. Thanks!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Others are more knowledgeable on Chicago Mex... but I really doubt Austin has any of the Guerrero cuisine that is prevalent & delicious in Chicago:

    > Venison Tazajo
    > Quail in various styles
    > Teloloapan Red Mole
    > Charales Capeados (Smelt fried in Egg Batter)

    etc., etc.,

    1. My answer to your question is 100% no. Although there are quite a few other places to try for the "must - eat" Mexican food here, you might as well start at the flagship of these - Frontera Grill. Recent menu. Check for yourself if this is unique to you or not:

      The "must eat" Mex food here is NOT cheese enchiladas, wet burritos, ground beef tacos, nachos, and chili. It's more like Duck, ostrich, lamb, shellfish, and seafood. We do have plenty of tacquerias and the like, but the "must-eat" that you are hearing about is NOT about beans, rice, and a combination plate of one taco, one tamale and a tostada.

      If you know where you are staying, then you might be closer to some of the other places, but Frontera is pretty "Downtowny"

      9 Replies
      1. re: gordeaux

        Not all Mexican food in Texas is Tex-Mex. You appear to be confusing the fresh, contemporary Mexican food of Central Texas with Tex-Mex.

        To the OP: there is a wider variety of Mexican cuisines to be found in Chicago in neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Little Village than that seen in Austin environs.

        As for Tex-Mex: Chicago basically has one "specialized" restaurant and that's part of the Uncle Julio's chain.

        1. re: aelph

          I've been halfway misunderstood. The other half is my fault for not being accurate. I generally assume that when someone refers to Mexican foods in Chicago, they are thinking about the "gringo" places that are prevalent throughout the country, and therefore comparing the "gringo" places that are already available to them, and wondering why anyone would recommend having Mexican food in Chicago. Frontera puts their own spin on everything, but the OP did not mention anything about authenticity. For an out of towner asking about "must eat" Mexican food in Chicago, assuming they are going to be in a touristy area with no car (close to public trans,) I would still point them to Frontera...for starters. But anyway, back to the op - -
          E.B. - take a look at that menu, is that unique to you?

          I happen to to dig Frontera quite a bit, but in the past year, I've been to SolDM, La Oaxaquena, La Quebrada (one of my go to's,) and my beloved Las Asada's multiple more times than Frontera. Still, when a visitor asks about "must-eat" Mexican, Frontera Grill is a place that pops into mind.

          I can think of quite a few other places for better Authentic food, or even a few for better "foo-foo" Mex, but for a visitor seeking out "must -eat," I still think Frontera is a decent starting point.

          >>We do have plenty of tacquerias and the like, but the "must-eat" that you are hearing about is NOT about beans, rice, and a combination plate of one taco, one tamale and a tostada.

          If you know where you are staying, then you might be closer to some of the other places, but Frontera is pretty "Downtowny"<<

          Elysian Bliss - "Foo Foo," or authentic in a more homey setting. Which do you prefer?

        2. re: gordeaux

          For accuracy’s sake let’s be a bit honest here, Bayless and his two or three former chefs (of Sol de Mexico, etc.) do not accurately or even remotely reflect the overall Mexican cuisine landscape in Chicago by any means!

          But to read Chowhound’s Chicago board for any length of time, one could easily reach this incorrect conclusion based on the abundance of replies that would have you believe this to be the case. The fact is that they are less than 1% of what one would call white tablecloth Mexican establishments. The other 99% of Chicago Mexican restaurants could be broken down into a few categories:

          Taquerias are by far the most dominate style here at least 75-80%; they primarily represent the cooking styles of Guerrero, Toluca, Jalisco and Michoacán.

          Gringo; I just don’t know what else to call places like Pepe's, Lalos, and Las Palmas, they aren’t authentic but they are what they are.

          Faux Gringo: IMO, that would be Bayless, foofoo French styling’s and preparations of non-native ingredients put together in *mostly* traditional sounding dishes typically found in Mexico, the ostrich is a classic example. I have personally found this to be some of the most boorish food I’ve ever been overcharged for, but that’s my take on it, there are many fans of these few places, especially on this board.

          Roticerias – This is a growing style of grilled and rotisserie chicken places that are popping up all over, I personally love them.

          Marisqueria – seafood places that specialize in fresh seafood, Flamingo’s is a great example.

          We don’t have any Tex-Mex places that aren’t part of some goofball chain like “On the Border” or something like that, and my recent visit to Café Zia a New Mexico style restaurant was not very impressive for especially for that style of wonderful smothered food.

          Where Chicago really shines is when you step outside the proverbial box and look at it as a Hispanic culture center rather than focusing just on Mexican food.

          The numerous offerings of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central & South America as well as Spanish Tapas and a rather new and exciting style called Latino Nuevo are something I can attest cannot be found anywhere else, and I do go to Austin frequently enough to know that you can’t find the same tastes and diversity of Hispanic culture there.

          So my recommendation is to broaden your view and taste it all.

          1. re: abf005

            While I didn't find my meal at Topolobampo as tasty as Sol de Mexico.... I wouldn't smear Rick for doing something un-Mexican. While Topolobampo's dishes aren't particularly creative... I think the menu choices & technical excecution put it right there with the Upper Mid Level restaurants in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta etc., it is very representative of a certain style of Restaurant Cuisine that is prevalent in Mexico.

            Otherwise are we going to say that places like Tavern on the Green aren't really American just because it departs tangentially from the country diners throughout the Plains states etc.,?

            1. re: abf005

              Also... I have yet to eat at any compelling Nuevo Latino restaurant... I usually find that is the label used by gringo Chefs who try to cook authentic sounding Mexican dishes with a few Carribbean or Peruvian flourishes... but all done in a very dumbed down (flavor wise) matter... but maybe I am wrong.

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                EN, unfortunately it sounds like you may have missed out on the Latino Nuevo scene I was referring to. I’m assuming based on your first reply up-thread you’re not local, so I can see how it would be near impossible to have hit most of this cities more tucked away establishments that aren't part of the “media darling” circuit or even due to the sheer number of places and limitation of us having only one stomach!

                Anyway, the places I’m referring to are decidedly not just "Mexican with flourishes" nor are they run by "gringo chefs" in almost every case. But they are rather places that offer contemporary Latin foods that are typically representative of numerous Latin countries on a single menu, generally made by Latin chefs in a white tablecloth setting; May St Cafe is a prime example.

                BTW: last time I checked, Rick Bayless is quite the gringo, is he not? Not to mention he's from Oklahoma City, not exactly a place well known for Mexican food other than Casa Bonita & Taco Bueno... But just for the record, I'm not seeking to smear Rick, I'm just calling a spade- a spade. I honestly don't care for the food or the media machine behind his 2 ½ restaurants, (Fonterra Fresco is hard to call a restaurant since it’s a food court offering) but nonetheless I’ve been to all them and given him ample chances to impress me but failed. So I have determined that my money and tastes are better off elsewhere, but I won’t lie to anyone, and warn them not to have unrealistic expectations about it, such as I did based on numerous posts here and the media build up.

                gordeaux: you know I love your posts, and as we all know picking a place downtown for great Mexican food is a challenge. I firmly believe that the whole downtown area has just about the most dismal selection of Mexican food in the entire Chicagoland region! So if we are bound to recommend a place in or near the loop, then maybe Bayless is the only logical option, I just think it should be given with an asterisk!

                1. re: abf005

                  No not in Chicago but I gave up on Nuevo Latino around 2004 or so after many dissappointments from San Francisco to L.A. to New York.

                  While Rick Bayless maybe a gringo... he has traveled Mexico more extensively and knows more about Mexican cuisine than the vast majority of Mexicans... that is different than some young geeky Gringo who has been cooking French inspired cuisine all his professional life trying to get cute with Mexican & Latin flavors.

                  I don't dispute that Chicago's Nuevo Latino might be the real deal... but over & over again what I have observed is that some young, hip gringo that wants to do Authentic Mexican dishes but doesn't want to have the low end baggage typically associated with Mexican cuisine in the misguided Fine Dining circles of NY et al., will just take classic Mexican dishes, exorcise them of their soul... call it Nuevo Latino charge $$$ and serve it up with blaring Nuyorican Salsa, Pinatas, White Table Cloths etc.,

                  Maybe if a big hitter like Homaro Cantu decided to get back to his roots and did a Nuevo Latino restaurant I might give the concept a chance... but otherwise I don't expect much.

                  1. re: abf005

                    I surely do agree with you 100% that downtown is not the place to search for Mex food, and I did try to add the asterisk (nicely)

                    "If you know where you are staying, then you might be closer to some of the other places, but Frontera is pretty "Downtowny""

                    BUT we'll just have to disagree about Frontera's food. I have never had a bad meal there. Yes, I've read plenty of reviews that say the food is not that great, and the service is horrible, but honestly, I've never had a less than darn good meal there. I would never, ever pay to go to TOPO again, but I could be easily coaxed into going to Frontera if the people I was going with needed the foo foo setting. If it was me and the friends I have who are more about the food, then yes, we could do better than Frontera for the price. And pretty easily too.
                    Abf, I have noticed something in reading through a few threads, and I have a question for you. I think I feel the same way about Salpicon as you do about Frontera. I've given Salpicon three chances, and I have never had anything off the menu there that even bordered on interesting much less good.Of the three times I went, I think twice was part of a group of four where everyone ordered different entrees, and apps ( I have a way of forcing ppl to order different things so I can taste them all.) None of the ppl I went with enjoyed any of the food.
                    Do you like Salpicon? I just wonder if there's any sort of a "different camp" kinda thing. I have noticed in other threads, that some ppl LOVE Salpicon but hate Frontera and vice versa. Although I wouldn't say I LOVE Frontera, I will openly admit that I really like the food there. Yes, this has nothing to do with the thread, really, but it's just my own curiosity. My guess is, that you don't like the foo-foo ness of Salpicon, either? Either way, I still respect your opinions, and postings, but I really do like Frontera's food.

                2. re: abf005

                  I gotta tell you, the avestruz I had at Sol was phenomenal. I did pre-order a multiple course meal for our table, and maybe there was more attention paid to the cooking and pres (which would be a knock on the place for lack of consistency) - but the ostrich was stellar. Not even remotely chewy. Tender as a rare or med rare prime top sirloin (not as tender as a tenderloin, or a ribeye, but nowhere even close to being chewy.) I will definitely not say that your ostrich was not sub-par, but if it was at Sol, then I don't think what you got is par for the course.

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  The best place to find authentic Mexican( not Tex-Mex) restaurants is in the Pilsen 9 original residents (now long departed to the suburbs) were Bobemians; as much of the architecture indicates. It's prettily easily reached by car or bus. St. Its oundaries are Canal Street to the east, 16th Street to the north, Cermak Road and Blue Island Avenue to the south, and Western Avenue to the west.
                  If I had to pick a favorite restaurant there it would be
                  Taqueria Los Comales 3141 W. 26th

                2. I think you'll find that the array of Chicago Mexican restaurlants cover most regions of the country. You can sample cuisine of Guerrero, Oaxaca the Yucatan, Michoacan the border area, Mexico City, etc., etc.

                  The Rick Bayless Mexican restaurants are probably the most famous in the city, but there are other good ones. At the top of my list currently is Sol de Mexico; I'm attracted to the rich mole's for which I don't think there's a match elsewhere in the city.

                  Not far from Downtown is a good lunch place, Bom Bon on Ashland Ave. La Oaxaquena on Milwaukee Avenue on the north side of the city offers excellent food representative of what you'd eat in Oaxaca. Atotonilco is a favorite of mine when I'm in the mood for tacos - at either the 26th or 47th Street locations.

                  If you love tamales, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero on N. Clark St. in the Rogers Park neighborhood makes and serves (dine-in/take out) excellent tamales as you'd find in Guerrero or Oaxaca.

                  There are so many good Mexican restaurants many are easy to forget - and they're found throughout the city and suburbs - not just in one neighborhood.

                  What makes it "unique" in Chicago? The more than 500,000 Mexicans living in the area who come from so many different parts of Mexico. That's why the Mexican food scene is so unique in Chicago - one of the best areas in the country to find the food.

                  1. And, of course, if you really want to be transported to Mexico (street-scene/food-wise), be sure to put the Sunday morning Maxwell Street market on your list. Fresh tamales, tortillas, menudo, much more.