Monday, September 26, 2011

Frontera Grill–Chicago

frontera gillI enjoy researching restaurants almost as much as I enjoy eating in them.  Whenever I know we are headed to a new location either for business or pleasure, I will spend hours trying to learn as much as I can about good eats places there.  We've eaten at everything from very fine dining to those hole-in-the-wall gems.  Fortunately for me, Hubby is always willing to follow my suggestions.
I've only been to Chicago for an extended weekend, but when I found out that we were going, I knew I wanted to eat at Frontera Grill, a Rick Bayless restaurant.  I was  a fan of his PBS show Mexico: One Plate At a Time for years.  He takes authentic Mexican cuisine and reinterprets it with a modern twist.
I tried making reservations but only got a recording which said that we were invited  to make reservations online for Topolobampo, his higher- end restaurant.  Finally, I called the concierge of our hotel to ask about reservations and was told that FG had never taken reservations even though the website, Urbanspoon, and Zagat all said that they did.  Hmmmm.  Not a good sign, especially when you are on a very limited trip schedule.

Why Mexican food? Chicago, home of the Chicago dog and the deep-dish Chicago pizza.  Go figure.

We just took our chances and showed up on a weeknight about 8:30.  The forty-five minute proposed wait did not seem like such a big deal since we had been told that we might wait up to two hours or more.  Did we ever luck out!  We headed to the bar to wait and got seated there immediately.

We were fairly traditional in our choices, starting with the guacamole with homemade chips ($9.75) and the sweet corn tamale with homemade crema, queso fresca and grilled poblano ($8).  They were both served with sides of tomatillo salsa and a smooth chipotle salsa that had a slight kick.  The guacamole was chunky and fresh with just the right amount of salt, garlic and lime.  The salsas were both very good, a garlicky three-chile (cascabel, morita, guajillo) and a  roasted tomatillo with serrano and cilantro.   The fresh corn tamale could have been dessert.  We stopped just short of licking the plate.  We split both of these as we did our entree and dessert.

fg tamale 2Actually, to be honest,  we started with a margarita each.  I really enjoyed the smokiness of the tamarind margarita ($10) that I ordered.  It was made from Tres Generaciones blanco tequila, contreau, fresh lime and a hint of chipotle.  I really liked that the rim was dusted with ground chipotle and the drink was not so sweet as some margaritas tend to be.  Hubby's blue agave margarita ($10) made with Cazadores blanco tequila, cointreau and lime juice suited him just fine.  The taste was much more traditional margarita.
I tried to convince Hubby that he really needed to try the Carne Asada a la Oaxaquena, but he declared that he wasn't hungry enough to eat an entire entree by himself.  I already knew that I wanted to give the wood-grilled catfish Tacos al Carbon, served with roasted pepper rajas, the two salsas, frijoles charros, guacamole and homemade chips ($18) a try, so he opted to share mine.  The fish was grilled without being dry and spiced with, you think I already have an addiction?  Our dish made three good-sized tacos which, with the beans, was certainly plenty.  Those beans!  I could easily eat a large bowl ($4.50) of those all by myself with nothing else.  The balance of flavors from the Gunthorp bacon, tomatoes, poblanos and cilantro made for a very satisfying back of the tongue experience.

Our fellow bar companions were enjoying their choices as much as we were ours.  I asked if they would mind sharing their reviews, and they even offered to share a bite or two from their dishes.  I declined, but I was definitely tempted.
We followed our entree with the zucchini doughnuts which were three featherlight round cinnamon cake doughnuts served with a swirl of chocolate sauce and sugared nuts.  There was some whipped cream involved.  The bartender said that these were his favorite, and I can see why.  I would definitely order them again.

fg trioOur San Francisco friends make Frontera Grill a regular stop.  In fact, they said that they often eat there multiple times per trip.  That's just how much they love the place.  On the night we visited, San Fran Gal had the Enchiladas de Mole Poblano with a side of Arroz a la Mexicana, declaring that the mole was absolutely phenomenal (price uncertain).  Since she and San Fran Guy used their tortillas to sop the bowl, I guess it really was.   San Fran Guy started with the Trio, Trio, Trio ($18.50) which was a sampling of Ceviche Fronterizo (Hawaiian albacore), Ceviche Yucateco (shrimp and calamari) and Coctail de Atun Tropical (yellowfin tuna). I really wanted to take a picture, but being the Southern gal that I am, felt that might be just a tad rude.  It was pretty.  And, apparently, it was really tasty.
SFGuy's entree was the Pato en Chichilo - slow-grilled Gunthorp duck breast, classic Oaxacan chichilo (dark savory mole scented with avocado leaves, almonds, herbs). with reed chile corn fritters, grilled local patty pan squash, spicy guero chile escabeche listed for $23.50.  I was too timid to order it since I had read a couple or reviews that said the mole seemed to be too sweet, and I really don’t care for too-sweet mole.  SFGuy...well, I won't repeat what he said in response to that!  He relished his entree.

Native Nice Guy to my right was very willing to offer his suggestions and even offered to let me sample his plate.  How nice was that!  His Ensalada Frontera made with Shooting Star Little Gem lettuce, spicy pumpkinseed-lime dressing, "quick-pickled" tomatillos, and wood-grilled knob onions ($8.75) really presented nicely and seemed to be enjoyed.  He didn't exactly lick the bowl, but he came close.  I wish I could remember the name of his enchilada entree, but I didn't write it down thinking I just couldn't forget it.  Well,  I did.  He declared it to be awesome (overused adjective, I know).
The online menu is only a portion of what is actually available.  I suggest that you go in prepared for an initial visit with some idea of what you would like to try.  Otherwise, it can be overwhelming.  Overcome your hesitancy about asking for recommendations from the locals.  In Chicago, they are very willing to give those...and are very nice to do so.

I’m checking on cheap flights to Chicago.  It’s worth the trip.

Food: 4 spoons (out of 5)
Service: 5 spoons Atmosphere: Lively and fun
Price: 3  spoons
Going back: Yes (it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it!)
Outside seating: no
Alcohol: yes

Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon

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