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May 7, 2010 09:01 AM

Beantown Hound Hits Chowcago - Only Bad Experience Topolobampo

Try to keep it short. I was somewhat transport confined so cabbed it around a bit.

TAC - amazing Thai: fish maw salad, pork neck, tarrow custard desset. All excellent. Dessert possibly best Thai dessert I've had. Dang that pork neck was nice.

Zocalo downtown: pretty decent Mexican, GREAT guac, better then waiting on line at Frontera grill. Certainly better than anything in Boston, but we don't have a lot of Mexican.

Pizzeria Due: way back when I was impressed. This time, honestly just pizza. I'm sure a dozen of you will chime in and tell me where I should have gone, etc. but wanted to give the old standby a whirl.

Portillo's downtown really just the convenient local location: Italian beef - okay, Hot Giard was excellent. Gravy only so so, tasted of bullion. Staff was REALLY nice. Jumbo dog with everything on it was truly excellent. Thin pizza not bad in a pinch. Chocolate cake very good.

Pastel Bakery: truly amazing desserts. World class. Nothing this good in Boston. Had flan, fruit tart, chocolate caramel tart and some cake with a whipped cream icing. One better than the next. WOW!!!

Zaragoza for birria tatemada. Totally excellent. Fabulous tortillas, amazing salsa, wonderful owners. Awesome.

If you are stuck in Mcormick center the only thing to eat is the hotdog (I forget the name of the vendor). Everything else looked gross, and the same vendor's Italian beef was totally lame and gave me a stomach ache. The hot do was pretty darned good.

e.leaven - really nice breakfast joint. Delicate touch, nice baked goods, loved the yeasty cinnamon roll, great omelette's and coffee.

Topolobampo - Dang he's gotten popular over the years. I usually eat in Frontera grill, but the lines were absurd. Wanted to try Xoco, but also crazy lines. Topolobampo was honestly a TOTAL disappoinment. A waitress who ruthlessly upsold us to the point that we ordered too much food, insanely pricey (for what it was) and not that tastey. The Walleye dish was a weird spicy poor execution, the ceviche was nothing to write home about. The veg dish was good, but short on the mentioned morels. I would NEVER eat there again. Might write Bayless to express my concern. Our meal bordered on embarassing. Also as we were entering a woman was telling the hostess how BAD the service was. Has Topo jumped the shark?

Pizzeria Due
619 N Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

Zocalo Restaurant
358 W Ontario St, Chicago, IL 60654

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  1. So sorry you had a bad experience at Topo.

    I ate there last fall and was absolutely delighted. We had Bayless' Top Chef Masters Tasting Menu and were thrilled with both the food and the service. There was a mix up with our reservation and they bent over backwards to accomodate us.

    Heaven knows any place can have an off night and it's a shame that you got one.

    2 Replies
    1. re: chicgail

      I ate at Topolobampo in January. We ordered a la carte selections rather than the tasting menus. The food and the service were both very good. The only flaw was that the portion size was rather skimpy on several of the dishes - not all of them, but enough so that it was noticeable, and objectionable considering the relatively high prices at dinnertime. (Topo is a much better deal at lunch, when its prices are surprisingly similar to its less expensive FG sibling in the outer rooms.)

      445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

      1. re: chicgail

        I suppose an off night is okay. But when not a single thing about our meal was noteworthy, at that price point, it's simply not acceptable.

        I have eaten at Frontera and REALLY enjoyed it in the past. The meal I had on Tuesday was just blah, and the waitress was a total drag.

        She was a drag to us, and to the surrounding tables: talked to much, annoying opinions, ruthless upselling, correcting diner's on pronunciations with her own, incorrect pronunciations of Spanish words. No restaurant management should allow a waitress like that to stick around. Did I mention the food was a total bore?

      2. My wife and I, also from the Boston area, visited the Frontera Grill on Thursday night. We got there about 4:45 and were about 10th in line. We were seated around 5:30. The margaritas were excellent - although the bartender was a bit gruff. I had no complaints with our server at the table- he did a good job explaining the menu without any upsell. The guac and chips were great, especially the green salsa - which I asked for more in a bigger cup. The ceviche was decent, but not the fresh seafood flavor I was expecting. I ordered the special - "slow" cooked lamb in banana leaf - wasn't as tender as I would expect something "cooked for hours" (according to the server) would be, and it desperately needed some salt. Mashed potatoes were made with so much butter, that it looked like they were sweating. My wife was feeling full from the apps and drinks and just had some soup - the smokiness of the chicken chicharonnes that topped the soup overpowered all other flavors. With all the build up of reading how great the place is from this board and friends and such, I was dissapointed. But would go back to sit at the bar for a couple of coctails and a snack or two.

        Frontera Grill
        445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

        2 Replies
        1. re: LStaff

          This may fall under the heading of "sour grapes" or "it's just as well that it worked out this way", but I'd like to relate past experiences as compared to a recent "non-experience". I first went to Topolobampo quite a few years ago with a colleague on a trip from Chicago from upstate NY. I've been a big fan of the PBS show from the beginning. I have many of Rick's books and cook from them frequently. We had a nice, leisurely meal. Had a tasting menu, which they did a substitution or two for us for things we didn't like gladly, which many restaurants won't do. We did wine pairings and the sommelier gave us plenty of time and attention. No feeling of any need to turn the table. I've been back to both Topo and Frontera many times with my better half and we've always enjoyed. We have a trip coming up in mid-June and anticipated going there. We called five weeks ahead for either a Tuesday or a Thursday and were told nothing available for eight weeks. If they weren't popular enough to begin with, between the internet (wonderful sites like this) and all the publicity surrounding the restaurant as one of the Obamas' favorites (it was shown on the Travel Channel recently) as well as all the great things Rick does (chosen to do a state dinner for the President of Mexico), as well as the success of the television show, I wonder if it's just too much for them to handle. Happens lots to otherwise good restaurants when they get a good review somewhere- it's easy for them to get overwhelmed. Although we were disappointed not to be able to secure a reservation, I'm glad for their success; just doesn't sound like it's quite the same place we used to go to. Fortunately, there are many good choices in Chicago and we'll probably make a new discovery somewhere else.

          445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

          1. re: markabauman

            Well said, doesn't have the vibe it did when I started going 10 or so years ago.

        2. Weird, I was there on Saturday night and the meal was unbelievable. Bayliss was in the kitchen and the service was warm and cordial. Maybe someone from the restaurant saw this thread?

          7 Replies
          1. re: Notorious P.I.G.

            My experience is mostly like yours, but it seems that Bayliss has often been a subject of disagreement. On this board and elsewhere.

            I have always appreciated what Bayliss has brought to this country in terms of his knowledge of regional Mexican food, ingredients, creativity and just plain brilliant execution. Most of the US thinks Mexican food is tacos, enchiladas, refried beans and rice. His work is the source of the extraordinary regional Mexican restaurants in this city and beyond.

            I have had amazing meals at his places and some just pretty good ones. I have learned Mexican cooking techniques just from his cookbooks and those were reinforced by cooking classes I took in Mexico. And there have been recipes I've tried of his that were stunning and others that just didn't work and that I needed to alter.

            Some people don't like his food. Or have had a bad experience. Or like someone else's food better. But Bayliss is undeniably a ground-breaker in America's (and especially Chicago's) experience of creative, gourmet Mexican cuisine.

            I stand by him and his restaurants.

            1. re: chicgail

              I agree totally with all of the above. I am encouraged to hear that people are still having satisfying experiences there. I will just have to plan much further ahead in view of the restaurant's ever-increasing popularity.

              1. re: markabauman

                Mark, keep in mind that Topolobampo is also open for lunch during the week, and doesn't book up as far in advance as it does for dinner. Tuesdays through Thursdays often have openings even at the last minute, more so than Fridays. (Mondays they are closed.)

                As another strategy, Frontera Grill holds most of the dining room open for walk-in traffic. Waits tend to be lengthy for Friday and Saturday evenings, but are not so bad on weeknights or for Saturday brunch. And if you eat at the bar at Frontera Grill, you can order off either menu, Frontera's or Topolo's.

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Thanks; will keep that all in mind.

            2. re: Notorious P.I.G.

              Bayless hasn't worked the line for more than a decade, judging by the comments he frequently makes in interviews. He doesn't cook in his restaurants anymore, but he does do some spot taste-testing. His function is to market the business, and help develop new dishes in the test kitchen. Well, there's the rare occassion he does cook ... like when he tried unsuccessfully to make breakfasts on opening day at Xoco. He's a wonderfully talented guy overall with a great staff that makes his operations succeed. I think he's better at the TV show and writing books than he is working the line these days. I'm most disappointed at his restaurants by the 'white socks to your knees and berumda shorts' or dirty blue jeans crowd that lines up to get in ... a turn-off for me because they so often look like slobs and I don't enjoy dining in that type of environment. Eat later in the evening at Frontera and Topolo, after the tour bus crowd goes home to bed. ;-)

              1. re: gomexico

                Oh no doubt, but when he's there, I'm sure, and would hope that his crew pulls up their socks a bit. Not that they don't regularly but when an exec chef is in his kitchen the environment is heightened a bit leading to extra care in the dishes.

                1. re: Notorious P.I.G.

                  I think you're right ... whether he's working the line or just sipping sauces, the rest of the crew is on edge trying to do their very very best work. He does wander about his places a lot, and it's easy to see him working the places if you're a customer ... and if he's in town.

            3. Wish I had seen this review earlier. I was there on 6/18. The food was fine, but unfortunately it was served with a HUGE side-order of attitude and topped with a heaping helping of "you're just lucky to be here." Whatever was enjoyable on the table was completely ruined by awful staff / service. Sadly we too were subjected to the big upsell - I'm sorry, is this a fine dining establishment or "Crazy Willie's Used Car Super Store." This was my first visit and will definitely be my last. Reading more here (and elsewhere) it seems that Topo is merely living off the life support of its once-deserved reputation. Do yourself a favor and skip it.

              445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610