Eating Chicago: The Bayless Trifecta
I don’t know about you, but when I dine at the restaurant of a celebrity chef, I am expecting to eat at a restaurant owned by the chef. I do not assume that the chef will be cooking my meal, what with being a celebrity and whatnot. After all, the celebrity chef has far more important things to do, such as starring in a multitude of TV shows, producing cookbooks as quickly as Kate Gosselin pops out babies, merchandizing gourmet food products in pretty packaging, altruistically supporting local farmers, and even writing goddamned travel blogs when they get restless. You know. That’s just an average day for your good ol’ fashioned celebrity chef.
Well, not really, but it certainly applies to Chef Rick Bayless.
Considering the number of chiles he has on the fire at any given time, it is a fair assumption that when you visit one of his restaurants, you will be served a delightful meal by one of his very competent team of astute chefs and sous chefs, while he trots around Mexico waving to tourist slayers and asking them where to go for the crispiest taquito. You would not expect, therefore, to peek into the kitchen on the way to the loo and see him calmly directing traffic on the line and tasting sauces before they go out. You would also not expect to see him come ambling through his takeaway joint in chef’s whites during the lunch rush.
But he did. Because that’s Rick Bayless.
You should probably know that I have a serious chef-crush on Rick Bayless. And the executive chefs at Frontera and Topolobampo, who I have never met or seen pictures of but I imagine they would like me too. Oh, and I have a crush on the woman at Xoco who was squeezing out churros into the deep fryer as we waited for our order. Pretty much, I have a foodie love-crush which encompasses the area from 445 to 449 North Clark St. in Chicago, and everything or everyone contained therein.
Poor Rick (apparently, due to my adoration we are now on a first name basis). It was our last day in Chicago, and we were eating at the third and final Bayless restaurant, Xoco, when he appeared, shouldering his way through the crowd. And I was in his way. To be honest, he was actively trying to avoid the mass of hungry bodies clamouring up to the counter, and I wasn’t so much in his way before I recognized the beard and launched myself in his general direction.
“Chef Bayless!! Hey, YOU’RE RICK BAYLESS!” I babbled. “Do you know that you have fed me in all three of your restaurants over the last three days??”
He looked slightly taken aback, as if he was really just in there to pass a message on to his staff and had not been anticipating an ambush by a wide-eyed and slightly manic superfan who was still wiping carnita grease off her chin.
“Oh, hehe…” he nervously chuckled. “Well that’s, uh…..huh. You’re funny. That’s very nice of you, thank you.”
With that, he scrambled back through the doors to Topolobampo, while I euphorically hissed at Mike, “Did you see that? I met Rick Bayless! I MET RICK BAYLESS!! He said…he said….HEY, I MET RICK BAYLESS!!!!” Mike just patted me on the back with a couple of “yes, dear’s”, knowing that he was likely to be badgered with chatter about tortas, tamales and tostadas for the next three hours or so until we arrived back at home.
But whatever. I MET RICK BAYLESS! Sort of. But good enough for me.
It isn’t tongue and cheek to refer to the intersection of Clark and Illinois Street in Chicago as “The Bayless Trifecta”. His first restaurant, Frontera, shares an entrance with the fine dining expansion of Topolobampo. Continuing bird’s eye behind the wall you will find Xoco, the casual little sister and preeminent lunch spot that completes the trio of good taste. Each restaurant has a unique feel, from the understated elegance of Topolo and sunny ebullience of Frontera to the easy charm of Xoco. What they all share, however, is a passion for local, organic and sustainable ingredients, exceptional quality and realistic prices.
The other thing that they all share, the common thread that you will see throughout these many meals and pictures, is the same exceptional and noteworthy guacamole. The guacamole that I could not stop eating, in fact, and which I think of fondly but refuse to make because in my memory it was so utterly perfect. However, if I were to attempt replication, I would probably start with this recipe. Or possibly this one, because I could have sworn the toothsome red bits were tangy sundried tomato instead of just, “Shut up and eat it”, which is how Mike described the texture when I questioned him repeatedly for the first half hour of every meal.
That said, unbuckle your top button and get ready for the hunger pangs, because we went on quite the culinary ride…..
Restaurant 1: Topolobampo
Topolobampo was our first stop, and the upscale sophisticate option of the Bayless empire. In here, the music is as sultry as the ambience, with low lighting and modern decor balanced by brazen accents like punched bronze chargers and indigo glass lit by candlelight. It was surprisingly quiet considering the bustle of Fronterra that we walked through en route to our table, and although the restaurant filled rapidly over the course of our meal, it was sparsely populated when we arrived.
The meal began with some deliciously potent cocktails, shaken at the table and garnished sparingly. When it comes to slushy machines full of frozen margaritas, I am akin to the perpetually hammered 21 year old on Spring Break in Cancun. Except that I prefer to keep my bra securely fastened around my torso for as much of the evening as possible. And foam parties look a bit too rabies-sharing for me, as do…well, whatever else they do now, which I’m sure I would not approve of (unless I had done it myself a decade or so earlier, in which case I would STILL not approve, but I might give it a high-five and a snicker). Frozen drinks have a place in this world, but a traditional margarita made with freshly squeezed citrus and a mighty, mighty fine tequila? That is another beast entirely, and should be worshipped.
Several times, in fact.
As we perused the menu, our waiter brought out a complimentary dish of The Guacamole and fresh tortilla chips, still warm from the fryer. This was our first taste of the ubiquitous Bayless guac, and 2 minutes in we were warily eyeing one another as Mike quietly muttered to me that no, in fact, it would not be appropriate for me to lick the banana leaf or put it in my purse for later.
Topolobampo is known for having exceptional tasting menus, but ever since I had first browsed the menu online, I was smitten and knew that it would be a la carte for the two of us.
Our first appetizer was thinly sliced local foie gras, which melted like rich butter on the tongue. It was complemented by a sweet and tangy slow poached quince, chilled melon, pickled cactus paddle (nopale) and a sauce that was deeply earthy and aromatic with epazote. I had to choose this one because;
a) I understand your ethical considerations, but I am still a sucker for foie gras
b) Nopales are a mythical ingredient to me because they are simply not seen in Ontario.
c) See point ‘b’, but substitute anything with fresh epazote. Or dried epazote. Or any other Mexican ingredient that doesn’t come from Taco Bell.
For the second starter, we were restrained (ha!) and only ordered the half-sized seafood platter, “Marisquera de Lujo”. This was comprised of a half dozen oysters, classic “Ceviche Fronterizo”, and “Coctel de Atun Tropical”.
There were three varieties of oysters, each with an accompanying garnish, including simple fresh lime, a sweet and smoky dark roasted chili sauce (possibly guajillo?), and a vibrant and tangy riff on mignonette, with fresh lime juice contributing to acidity and a bit of texture in the finely diced aromatics. Sadly, we had no idea which sauce to pair with which oyster, so we just had to wing it and use whatever was closest to that particular shell. The Mexi-nette, as I took to calling it, was perfectly balanced, light and crisp, and made me wish that we had another half dozen oysters.
As for the Coctel de Atun, the tuna was ruby hued and fresh in a pleasing marinade, and although the portion of fish was weak it was served over more of that luscious guacamole. We fought over the rest of that second helping too, in case you’re interested. The Ceviche Fronteriza made it clear why it was a long surviving favorite; the fish was tender and cured without being chewy, and the dish was simple, bright and flavorful, if a little bit heavy on the acidic lime.
BEWARE: what you are about to see is the sorriest excuse for a food photograph that we have callously offered up to date. This one is particularly pitiful, because the food was delicious and you may be doubtful based on appearance alone.
I hear a certain siren song whenever lamb is on the menu, and similar to the foie gras, I am helpless to resist. The first entree was “Borrego en Mole Negro“, a pan-roasted Elysian Fields lamb loin in a swarthy pool of classic Oaxacan black mole. The mole is described as, “chilhuacle chiles and 28 other ingredients”. At Topolobampo, simplicity can suck it. On the side were some slices of a forgettable vegetable and an intriguing black bean “tamalón”. I loved the tamalon. The flavor was mild, but the texture was dense and almost cheesy with tender layers that were easily teased apart.
The other entree was “Carne Asada Brava”, a spicy grilled rib eye with a rustic multi-chili salsa, grilled knob onions and a sweet corn tamale. Despite the jalapeno marinade and accompanying spicy salsa, this dish had a fire that licked the line of overwhelming but managed not to cross. The rib eye was juicy and perfectly seared, and the tamale was pure corn infused comfort food with a sprinkle of salty fresh cheese. As for the knob onion, I understand why it was there, but it just didn’t work for me. The char was superficial and the inside of the onion tasted underdone and acerbically raw, the greens tops were tied charmingly but still stringy, and overall it was difficult to eat and not my favorite accompaniment to an otherwise excellent dish.
And to wash it down, more cocktails. Mike licked all the chipotle salt off the rim of my “Mexican Moderna”, which I had promptly traded away as soon as I had a sip of his “Oaxacan Gold”. The latter is a fruity and intoxicating (pardon the pun) blend of mezcal, vanilla, fresh lime juice and grilled pineapple with a smoky chili infused rim. Delightful.
Dessert is a rarity at our house, but an essential after a meal like this one. It would have been foolish to attempt one each, so we chose to share the waiter’s recommendation of “Pastel de Vanilla con Platano y Cafe”. To my non-Spanish speaking self, that reads as “Vanilla Pastry with Plantains and Coffee”, and indeed it was a Mexican vanilla crema cake with warm orbs of plantain ‘pudding’ (whatever, it tasted like deep fried plantain balls), banana ice cream, vanilla ice cream (perhaps?) and a crunchy coffee flavoured crumble. The contrast of temperature and texture was perfect, the sweetness was balanced and not cloying, and the combination of flavours was pleasing, if not particularly inspired.
And the best treat of all, a little splurge for something from Topolo’s exceptional selection of tequila. All those years that I spent harfing up bile laced with salt and flecked with particles of lime, they could have been mostly avoided if I had known then that a good tequila was warm, complex, and as smooth as my favorite scotch or brandy. Life lessons, my friends. I plan to file this one in the chapter called, “AND ONE TIME I MET RICK BAYLESS AND HE SAID HI!”
Restaurant 2: Frontera Grill
Frontera is Bayless’ flagship, the iconic first restaurant that built his name and won the heart of Chicagoland. Inside, it is bright and boisterous, colourful and fun. We had made reservations for a late brunch, and there was still a staggering line up by the hostess stand when we arrived. However, we were briskly whisked to our seats, and ready to enjoy another foray into this delicious and unfamiliar cuisine.
You may be wondering why we chose brunch rather than lunch or dinner. Well, there are several reasons. First and foremost, I love brunch. Where else can you raise a glass to good company over bacon and eggs? I firmly believe that a good brunch sets you up splendidly for the rest of the day. While we pondered how to soak it up, we sipped on Frontera’s signature beer, locally brewed by Goose Island. The beer was a Belgian style wheat ale that was light and fruity with just a hint of bitter green spice and a citrusy finish. The spicy house roasted pepitas on the table encouraged us to finish those first glasses rather faster than was wise.
Even brunch needs an appetizer, and the sharing platter is a great way to nip and sample. The “Entremes Surtido” included cheese quesadillas, chicken taquitos with crema and fresh cheese, ceviche tostadas, jicama salad and more of that fabulous and utterly addictive guacamole.
Having worked in such a variety of bars and pubs over the years, I always thought of a “quesadilla” as a lazy man’s dinner, the warm tortilla shell folded over some melty cheese and whatever else happened to be lying around. I was not anticipating a deep fried pocket like a Spanish empanada, with thin and slightly chewy dough encasing a mild but molten white cheese. Not that we were complaining, and far from that, in fact. The chicken taquitos were crispy and well done but not terribly compelling, and the ceviche tasted suspiciously like last night’s appetizer had just been refrigerated overnight. Still very good, mind you, just slightly tougher and fishier tasting than the day before. The surprising dark horse star was actually the jicama, which was watery and crisp, completely refreshing. Bright with the generous squeeze of lime and dusted heavily with chili powder, the jicama was a delicious mix of tangy, spicy, crisp and slightly sweet. Overall, a fabulous way to whet the appetite for our next dishes!
I selected “Sapitos”, a trio of Xalapa-style gorditas floating atop a chipotle scented black bean sauce. Each gordita had a different topping, either scrambled eggs, grilled chicken or chorizo. Again, my lack of experience with authentic Mexican food was astonishing, because the only ‘gordita’ that I had ever eaten was from Taco Bell. Needless to say, there were few (and perhaps closer to zero) similarities. The gorditas (corn masa cakes) were dense with an earthy taste. The scrambled eggs were tender and gently cooked, the shredded chicken was set off by some fresh chili and onion on top, and the chorizo was sweet, spicy and delicious. The condiments, however, were the best part. Homemade crema was drizzled on top with a sprinkle of queso fresco, and the smooth, inky black bean sauce was phenomenal.
Mike’s selection was the “Hot Cakes Indgenas” (no idea how to pronounce that) which were gritty coarse white corn pancakes topped with a sweetened agave goat cheese. On the side were two perfectly cooked sunny side up eggs and a couple slices of bacon, which were apparently red chile glazed and hickory smoked. That part was lost on me, but they sure were delicious crispy bacon! The pancakes were really the star of the show though, for once, with the intriguing texture and all that tantalizing syrup on the side….
Being an absolute sucker for side dishes, we had also ordered the “frijoles refritos” (refried black beans). Sadly, the rest of the meal had been so compelling and delicious that we were barely able to make a dent in that glorious violet mound, even after washing the pancakes down with a few more of those fabulous margaritas.
What a glorious brunch in such a lively and colourful restaurant! Dining at Frontera is definitely something that could be easily habit forming.
Restaurant 3: Xoco
The day that we were set to fly home, we dabbed up our sniffles of sadness and checked out of the hotel. But then I thought….hey, it’s only 10:45 and our flight isn’t until 2:30…..we can TOTALLY make one more stop!! Off we trotted to Xoco, Bayless’ informal answer to fast food, complete with an exterior order window and a diner-like atmosphere inside. At 11:00, the seating area still had a little bit of space, but by the time we left there was barely room to elbow our way out. After experiencing the quality, flair and craftsmanship in Topolo and Frontera, we were not at all surprised about the well deserved popularity.
Even at the lunch counter outpost, the Bayless core values were apparent: buy quality local produce, organically raised and humanely butchered meat, and provide the best food possible for a very reasonable price.
I should also mention that, as you can imagine, we are fans of any fast food or takeaway joint that happens to sell hooch. While we munched on warm tortilla chips with some fire roasted chili sauces and more of the obligatory – and outstanding – guacamole, we happily sipped away on a sweet and sparkly locally brewed hard cider.
After all that avocado, I must have had the brightest eyes and shiniest fur, I swear. Also, when we got home, this is what I was still seeing in my dreams:
The caldos (meal replacement soups) looked intriguing, but let’s face it; we were there for the sammies. Torta number one was the daily special of “Carnitas”. Slow cooked and richly flavoured shredded pork was topped with a pile of bright and sweetly acidic pickled red onions and manzano chiles, a thick smear of chunky guacamole, and a thin wipe of saucy black bean on the bun. Served on the side for dipping was some tomatillo salsa.
Doesn’t that torta just look bright and chipper, with the cheery pinks and sunshine gold and pale green? Doesn’t it look friendly and delicious? Yeah, well it was also hotter than Hades’ panties. With each bite there was a startling, face numbing heat that drained all the blood from my head and left me panting, gasping, clutching at Mike’s arm to signal the desperate need for a refill from the free water bar (and yes, there was a free water bar!!). This was, “oops, I just swallowed a fire-ant” hot. It was the punishing kind of hot that is normally only reserved for dreams of revenge against 7th grade bullies that gave you a wedgie at the senior assembly. It was definitely not for the faint of heart, but it was also absolutely addictive and moreish, and you bet your fresh crusty buns that we ate every bite.
The second torta was the “Pepito”, where braised boneless shortrib meat was smothered with sweet slowly caramelized onion, sharp and slightly salty Jack cheese, a generous slurry of black beans and some pickled jalapeno to cut through the richness. It was meaty, musky, deeply satisfying and utterly divine. Definitely the kind of sandwich where you suck your fingers, wipe a dribble of fat off your chin, and let out one of those long, deep, contented sighs that usually only belong to dogs and babies.
So that was a lot of food. That was a lot more food than we needed, certainly. Since we polished off every last crumb of torta, shard of chip and lick of sauce, it was also far more food than we can admit to consuming at lunch without a troubling twinge of shame.
It was not, however, so much that we would even consider leaving without sampling the infamous churros that had us drooling with anticipation for days. After sampling some of the best churros in Spain, we were curious to see how these Mexican cousins compared. Turns out, for deep fried dough that looked essentially the same, they were drastically different.
At Xoco, the churros were dichotic: cakey but light, decadent but not greasy, crispy but heavenly tender inside. I loved the sparkling sprinkle of granulated sugar and dark cocoa nib that caressed each perfect loop, and the chocolate was just as rich and luxurious as we expected.
Oh, Rick Bayless. Unfortunately for you, you now have two more Biggest Fans Ever on your hands. I suppose that there are worse things in the world, and I promise not to find out where you live and stalk you through the produce aisle of the supermarket (but only because I don’t live in Chicago. I like promises that are easy to keep), but I DO think that we should totally be besties. You know, the kind of besties that get together every afternoon to eat guacamole and gossip about how Brad Pitt gives his kids soda for breakfast. I’ll be waiting by the phone….