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Frontera Grill/Topolobampo, Chicago

Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

If you're like most Americans, Mexican food conjures up images of fajitas, piles of refried beans slathered with cheese, nachos, corn chips and crispy tacos filled with chopped beef and lettuce. In reality, that food should only be called what it really is: Tex-Mex. If you're in Chicago, you should discard any preconceptions about Mexican food and rush to the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants run by Rick and Deann Bayless. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo are adjacent to each other and share the same bar area. Topolobampo is a white-tablecloth restaurant, while the grill is more casual, with tile floors and banquettes.

The Baylesses have explored the Mexican countryside, searching out the most authentic regional dishes. Their dedication extends to such a degree that each year they close the restaurant and take the staff to Mexico to eat and discover new dishes. In a recent article, Rick Bayless wrote, "Contrary to most American expectations, well-made Mexican regional cooking does not (with a few exceptions) burn with capsicum [hot peppers]. Rather, it's notably full flavored and richly complex and, in more cases than not, offers deep-rooted, long-simmered satisfaction."

A recent meal amply supported Bayless's assertions. It started with a round of tamales oaxaqueños, a cornmeal cake studded with chicken in a red mole sauce--the earthiness of the cornmeal blended perfectly with the red, spicy sauce. A shrimp cocktail followed. This was really a raw seafood appetizer made snappy by spices and lemon; it sounded the only false note of the evening because the whole shrimp didn't quite marry with the dish. Beware of the tortilla chips here; they are addicting and, combined with the wonderfully spicy salsas, can make a meal in themselves. On top of that, the tortillas are freshly made by hand and keep coming steaming hot to the table throughout the meal.

The main courses included a puerco in pipian rojo, a wood-grilled pork tenderloin served in a classic sauce of two kinds of chile and pumpkin seeds. The meat was fork tender, and the rich, sweet spices produced a smooth combination. You can also order codornices en petalos de rosas (quail in rose petals), which was made famous in the novel by Laura Esquivel and movie by the same name, Like Water for Chocolate. And there is birria de cabrito, a chile-marinated goat dish that is roasted in banana leaves and provides a deep, complex set of aromatic flavors filled with spice.

There are no wrong turns on this menu. Bayless always finds just the right blend of spices to go with his ingredients, and you very rarely end up reaching for the water glass to quench some outrageously hot spice flavor. His menu changes not just seasonally, but weekly as well. But at any given moment, you will encounter absolutely authentic Mexican dishes, probably prepared far better here than any you could have in Mexico.

The wine list has about 100 selections, and Bayless works hard to find wines that are compatible with his full-flavored cuisine. There is a good selection of Zinfandels, including those of the highly regarded Nalle Vineyards. And he provides wines based on the Syrah, Petite Sirah and Mourvèdre grapes and, perhaps predictably, on the Tempranillo, which is the basis for many Spanish red wines. Bayless himself often suggests young, fruity Pinot Noirs to go with the meal.

The one catch here is that cigar smoking is not permitted at your table. But there are small tables and counters in the bar area where smoking is allowed. During the summer there is also a section of tables on the sidewalk where it's easy to have a smoke. Despite the restrictions, this is a place cigar aficionados should not miss. You get one of the world's great cuisines prepared to its highest level of sophistication. And somehow, the linkage to Mexico demands a fine hand-rolled cigar to finish off the meal.

--Gordon Mott

Frontera Grill/Topolobampo
445 N. Clark Street
(312) 661-1434
Dinner: $75 for two, without wine, at Topolobampo; $40 for two, without wine, at Frontera Grill

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