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Dining Out

Chicago 2011 Part 5 - Frontera Grill, XOCO

by Michael Chu
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For a few years now, I've wanted to taste the food at Frontera Grill. Rick Bayless makes his food look so inviting and enticing on television that we had to try it for ourselves. Are we glad we did! We ended up eating at Frontera Grill twice, once at Xoco (Bayless's cafe two doors down), and also at a Frontera Fresco (their fast food locations). All were superb and it's definitely worth the trip to Chicago to eat at these restaurants!

Rick Bayless has two restaurants at 445 North Clark St #205, Chicago, IL - on one side is casual Frontera Grill and on the other side is Topolobampo (fine dining). Because it is a more casual restaurant and they prefer to have most of their tables available for walk-in customers, Frontera Grill takes only a small number of reservations each night. I had a Tuesday night reservation at around 9pm and the place was pretty packed. We were seated within a couple minutes and since we were hungry we were thankful this wasn't the kind of restaurant where they make you wait an hour even if you have a reservation.

Frontera Grill - Guacamole
We started off by ordering a couple of appetizers - guacamole and ceviche. The guacamole ($9.75) was served simply - about a half cup of the avocado dip served on a leaf (maguey?) in a bowl with crunchy corn tortilla chips liberally spread on the surrounding plate. The was no show of making it tableside; it was simply brought out and placed on our table. A taste of the guacamole also revealed it to be simple... simple and perfect. The sparse mix of ingredients really let the fresh creamy avocado, mild spices, and distinct herbs to shine. This guacamole really was perfection, and we definitely felt that it was worth the relatively high price. It was so addictive that it took a LOT of will power to stop eating it so we would have some to eat along with the flank steak we had ordered. (Halfway through the guacamole, it dawned on me that the combination of that guacamole with the flank steak could be incredible; I'm glad I thought of it because it was awesome.)

Frontera Grill - Trio, Trio, Trio
Frontera Grill had four ceviches available when we were there as well as a combination where they serve three of them. Wanting to try as many as possible (with three we're bound to enjoy at least one of them), we ordered the Trio, Trio, Trio ($18) which comes with (from left to right) Coctel de At&uacut;n Tropical (Sashimi-grade Hawaiian bigeye tuna), Ceviche Yucateco (Steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari), and Ceviche Fronterizo (Lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore). The big eye tuna (which is blended with an avocado-tomatillo guacamole and mango-grapefruit salsa) was buttery, sweet, and smooth. The middle ceviche was shrimp and calamari mixed with lime, orange, habenero, avocado, jicama, and cilantro. We found the flavors to be amazing. The crunchy and light jicama, tart lime, and naturally sweet and salty seafood just triggered all flavor centers at once in a perfect blend of pleasure. This was our favorite of the three. The last ceviche was more traditional - albacore tuna marinated in lime juice, tomatoes, olives, cilantro, and green chile. Very, very good, but the first two were simply amazing.

At this point, we felt the food was so good that I got up and went to the front desk to inquire about making another reservation for later in the week. Unfortunately, there were none to be had - we would have to try our luck at walking in and putting our name on the waiting list. Tina and I agreed we would definitely try that.

Frontera Grill - Cazuela de Tinga
Cazuela de Tinga ($9.50) which is pork shoulder braised with roasted tomatoes, homemade chorizo, and potatoes (served with avocado and queso fresco liberally sprinkled on top). We found the flavors to be explosive and intense in this dish. The incredibly concentrated tomato flavors (roasting really intensifies tomatoes) blended with the spices, pork, chorizo, and potatoes wonderfully. We ate the dish by spooning it into fresh corn tortillas. Awesome.

Frontera Grill - Falda Asada "Brava"
The Falda Asada "Brava" ($29) is their spicy serrano-marinated grass-fed Tall Grass flank steak (with salsa huevona [hand-crushed, grill-roasted tomatoes, jalapenos], grilled knob onions, sweet corn tamales with crema and fresh cheese). Except it wasn't spicy. The flank steak was tender and nicely flavored, but I found myself loading it up with the salsa and, later, the guacamole I had saved for this purpose (so good). The corn tamale was nicely sweet without becoming candy-like - a good accompaniment. It was a well executed dish, but didn't leave me speechless like the previous items. Unless I was at Frontera Grill craving flank steak, I probably wouldn't order this dish again and try a different main course.

Frontera Grill - Duo de Flanes
For dessert, we ordered the Duo de Flanes ($8.25). The two flavors were "caf&eacut; con leche" and classic Mexican vanilla. We found the strongly flavored coffee flavored one better than the traditional flan. The vanilla flan had good texture, but the burnt caramel was a bit too bitter for our taste.

Because we only got to try a few items (chips and guacamole are really filling!) and what we had was so delicious, Tina and I agreed we had to come back at some point during our trip. I talked to the front desk and found out that usually the people who arrive just before they open for dinner (5pm on most days) can get in on the first seating. If you show up later than that, then the wait can be one to three hours depending on when you arrive and how far down on the list you are. However, you don't have to stay at the restaurant once you are on the waiting list. If you provide them with a telephone number, then they can give you a call when you are next. As long as you pick up the phone and confirm that you are on your way back to the restaurant, you'll get your table. (If you don't pick up the phone, they'll drop you off the list.) A couple days later, after eating at Xoco (next door), I came into Frontera to confirm that I understood the wait list system properly and they provided me with one more tip that changed everything: if I wanted to go see a movie, just don't leave a telephone number. When I return, my place in line will be preserved and if enough time had passed, most likely I would be at the front of the line! Tina and I decide to do just that on Friday night (catching a showing of Midnight in Paris and then returning to eat a second time at Frontera Grill).

XOCO - Lanie Bayless
Later that week, (upon the recommendation from our friend Rachel via Twitter) we found ourselves at XOCO (449 North Clark St, Chicago, IL), a small take out, dine-in, and patio cafe, two doors down from Frontera Grill. The line went out the door and down the sidewalk, but moved rapidly as more than half the people were ordering food to go. A tall, familiar looking dirty blonde wearing glasses greeted us with menus after which Tina whispered to me "that's his daughter". I asked a server who was checking on the line if that was Lanie Bayless and she confirmed it. I'm not sure if she pointed him out or I noticed on my own a few seconds later, but Rick Bayless was behind the counter with a spoon in hand overseeing the food prep. I didn't manage to get a clear angle, so no picture, but I did manage to get one of Lanie while she was double checking takeout orders.

XOCO - Copper Pot Stewing Carnitas
Personally, I was quite surprised to see Chef Bayless actively participating in his forty seater cafe which serves food all day for $15 per person or less. He clearly cares about the quality of the food coming out of his kitchens from the expensive to the pedestrian. It makes sense that three of his restaurants would be all clustered on half of a city block - it lets him pop into each of the kitchens as needed to make sure everything is up to his high standards. And, boy, could we tell his standards were high when I tasted the Torta Ahogada and the insanely decadent Mexico City Thick Chocolate.

XOCO - Side Salad
But first, we started with a refreshing side salad ($4) of romaine, arugula, jicama, and cucumber served with an avocado lime dressing.

XOCO - Torta Ahogada
My torta ahogada ($10), which Rachel said was better than what could be found in Guadalajara, was phenomenal. The carnitas was amazing - flavorful, tender, satisfying, and just plain delicious in ways I don't know how to put into words. The spicy tomato broth that the sandwich was soaking in was plenty spicy for me, but even with my mouth burning, I couldn't stop soaking the outstanding bread in it and spooning it up. The bright, spicy, richly flavored sauce paired perfectly with the succulent pork. I wish I had eaten at Xoco earlier in the week just so I could have planned to come back and eat this sandwich over and over.

XOCO - Pork Belly Vermicelli (Fideos)
Tina ordered the Pork Belly Vermicelli "Meal in a Bowl" Caldo ($12) which comes with pork belly, toasted noodles, woodland mushrooms, zucchini, and avocado all in a complex broth and served with salsa negra. Since that day was relatively cool (almost chilly), the hot bowl of soup with ample quantities of vegetables was perfect for warming us up.

XOCO - Churro
For dessert we ordered a churro ($1.50) which was fried just enough to make the dough crispy on the outside, set on the inside, and not at all greasy.

XOCO - Mexico City Thick (Champurrado) Hot Chocolate with Churro
Along with the churro, we got ourselves a hot chocolate which turned out to be the REAL dessert. Xoco has five hot chocolates to choose from (all made from Mexican Cacao Beans ground on the premises) ranging from the "Authentic" (chocolate and water) to the "Aztec" (chocolate with chile and allspice in water) to the "Mexico City Thick (Champurrado)". We ordered the Mexico City Thick (Champurrado) ($3.25) and found it was this amazing thick and rich and complex beverage (you don't really drink it... you sip it because the flavor is so amazing you want to savor it. Plus, it really is quite thick.). In this particular hot chocolate, the chocolate is blended with whole milk and fine masa to produce the thick texture that provides a luxurious feeling as it coats the mouth and fills every space with the flavor of pure chocolate. This is hot chocolate at its finest.

Later that evening, we returned to Frontera Grill (after getting on the wait list, watching a movie, and taking public transit back to the restaurant) for our second dinner there.

Frontera Grill - Ceviche de Callitos Tropical
Since we had tried the other three ceviches with the Trio, Trio, Trio, we decided to order the Ceviche de Callitos Tropical ($15). This ceviche was composed of Baja California bay scallops which have been marinated in lime juice and mixed with mango, jicama, and a tropical red chile citrus broth. We found it to be smooth and sweet. Delicious and definitely worth it. (Compared to the other three ceviches, though, I would still prefer the tuna and the shrimp/calamari ceviches.)

Frontera Grill - Ensalada de Mango con Chile<
Next up was a salad course: Ensalada de Mango con Chile ($8) made of Honey Manila mangos, red chile-mango dressing, baby greens, guajillo threads, chicharr&oacut;n, and queso. We found the salad to be excellent. The mango was super sweet and matched well with the brief burnt spiciness of the guajillo chile.

Frontera Grill - Sopes Rancheros
I'm a big fan of masa, so I'm always draw to sopes. The Sopes Rancheros ($8.50) (savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado, and homemade fresh cheese served on crispy corn masa boats) did not disappoint. The topping was meaty, savory, and lightly spiced with onions that provided a nice coolness with a minor bite. The masa was perfect - finely textured and strongly flavored.

Frontera Grill - Hongos y Papas al Pasilla<
Hongos y Papas al Pasilla ($8.50) is mushrooms (chanterelle, shiitake, and oyster) with Nichols fingerling potatoes in a dark & savory pasilla chile sauce. I found it very flavorful and complex with the added bitterness that I associate with dried chiles. It was served with soft corn tortillas which we ate taco style.

Frontera Grill - Camarones en Mole de Cacahuate
For our main course, we chose the Camarones en Mole de Cachuate ($25.50). In this dish, large Florida shrimp (fresh, not frozen) are grilled, chipotle glazed, and then served with a red peanut mole make of ancho and sweet spices. Red chile rice, Spence nettles, and crispy onions accompany the shrimp. The sauce was slightly sweet, slightly salty, mildly spicy, and incredibly complex in spice flavors and nuttiness. The entire dish was unbelievable with Tina describing it as "the greatest shrimp dish I've ever had". The rice was perfectly cooked and was mixed evenly with its red chile sauce, onion rings were light and crispy, and, most importantly, the shrimp were perfectly cooked.

Frontera Grill - Frothy Mexican Hot Chocolate
We ended our meal by ordering the Tres Leches ($8.75) and the Frothy Mexican Hot Chocolate ($5). They describe the hot chocolate as made with rustic Oaxacan dark-roast chocolate and steamed with hot milk. We found it just as decadent as the Mexico City hot chocolate we had at Xoco, but not as thick. It was very smooth to drink and had the wonderful aroma of fermented and roasted cacao beans. Hot chocolate is usually good no matter what, but in those rare times when you get the really good stuff, it's always amazing to realize just how much better a really good chocolate can be over the "normal" stuff.

Frontera Grill - Tres Leches de Fresa y Tequila
Frontera Grill's Tres Leches de Fresa y Tequila is infused with Cazadores tequila and served with strawberries, toasted meringue, caramelized pistachios, and tequila gelatins. The cake was made of two crumbly layers saturated with sweet syrupy goodness. The tequila infusion and the gelatins brought a nice tequila flavor to the dessert without being too strong.

Frontera Grill - Interior

For ease of navigation and to keep the page sizes down, I've split the trip report and reviews into multiple pages:
Chicago 2011 Part 1a - Overview
Chicago 2011 Part 1b - Overview
Chicago 2011 Part 2 - Shui Wah, Santa Anna Bakery
Chicago 2011 Part 3 - Pizzeria Uno, Giordano's
Chicago 2011 Part 4 - Gibson's Bar & Steakhouse
Chicago 2011 Part 5 - Frontera Grill, Xoco (this page)
Chicago 2011 Part 6 - Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi, Frontera Fresco, Marc Burger
Chicago 2011 Part 7 - Alinea
Chicago 2011 Part 8 - Vienna Beef Factory
Chicago 2011 Part 9 - Girl and the Goat

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on August 14, 2011 at 10:00 PM
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