Thursday, October 27, 2011

Road Trip: Frontera Grill--Chicago

Hubby and I just got back from a crazy food heavy trip to Chicago. People always look at me funny when we are there and they are asking why we are visiting, and I say, “to eat.”  Well, most people. A few of them get it.  Anyway, I nervously agreed to no reservations on this trip, and we were excited about trying several places that we had heard a lot about but never went because I hate the idea of waiting.  We did it last time with Avec and had a good experience, and decided to wing this whole trip.  I am a total planner though, and trying to figure out the best strategy for getting into these places made my stomach hurt a little.  I guess I am a little high strung.
So the first night we were torn between a couple of places, but decided to go to one of the places fairly near to where we were staying, and chose Frontera Grill.  Neither of us had been, and hubby had never been to any of the Bayless restaurants.  (I have been to Topolo before).  So here was how we handled getting a table.  The restaurant opens at 5:00.  I headed over from the hotel around 4:30, getting there about 4:40.  Amazingly, there were already about 40 or so people in line waiting, and the doors weren’t even open.  But here’s the deal—they are really organized. A nice lady came down the line getting your information. When she got to me she said we could have a table in the bar at 5:40 (later for the restaurant or outside) and I said we’d take it.  The nice thing is you don’t have to wait around—she said to check back in at 5:30 and they would give me a pager. Turned out at 5:30 they were ready for us.  And they don’t fill every table instantly so that the restaurant isn’t completely slammed all at once.  Which is pretty smart.  Eating on the early side in Chicago doesn’t really bother us though considering that it is an hour later in Indy.
We were seated in the bar, which hubby was happy about because it has a nice warm (and loud) vibe.  It is a little darker than the main restaurant, but like I said, we thought it also felt cozier.  Service can be a little unpredictable.  It took us quite awhile to get our first drink, but once we got started, it was a little more regular.  The servers are quite busy, and not as personable as I would like, but they aren’t rude or anything.
We both got a Topolo margarita to start which was made with housemade limonada, tequila and orange liqueur ($10).  They aren’t cheap considering it is served up, martini style, but it was tasty and a nice start to the meal.  I couldn’t have drank them all night though—they were kind of tart.  We started with the chicken tacquitos ($8.50).  There were several crispy taquitos leaned up against each other. They were filled with smoked chicken, poblano peppers and black beans.  They were sitting in a hearty pool of thick, fresh guacamole which also, along with some cheese filled in the space between the taquitos.  They were drizzled with homemade sour cream and more cheese, and topped with some micro greens and a bit of salsa verde.  They also brought a side of their two housemade salsas—a red and a green.  I loved dipping the crispy tacquitos all covered with guac and that thick sour cream into a bit more of the salsa verde on the side.  These were really good. And a really nice thing to share, as there was a fair amount of them.
Next we ordered a main dish and a trio of ceviches to share.  Frontera has an entire section on the menu called the “sustainable seafood bar.”  And you may or may not have noticed the slight obsession I have with good ceviche (not always easy to find) so I figured this should be a great place to try some.  The trio ($18.50) included three of their menu choices.  My favorite was the “Coctel de Atun Tropical” which technically wasn’t called a ceviche because the fish was really raw, not cooked at all.  It was little dices of yellowfin tuna with nice hunks of avocado and tomatillo and a mango grapefruit salsa.  I didn’t see a lot of actual fruit, but it had the slightly bitter, slightly sweet flavor from both fruits.  It was good. Really good.  Next I probably liked the Ceviche Fronterizo.  It was more the traditional ceviche—it was lime marinated albacore mixed with tomatoes, cilantro, green chilies, and supposedly olives (although, as so often seems the case, I didn’t get any olive).   This fish was more cooked through, as ceviche tends to be.  It was still nice and tender though, and it hit the spot for a traditional ceviche flavor. Nothing to wow you though.  My least favorite was the Ceviche Yucateco which was shrimp and calamari that was steamed and then marinated in lime and orange.  It also was seasoned with habanero, cilantro, jicama and avocado.  The shrimp were ok, but there were only 2 pieces of the shrimp and the rest was calamari, which was tough and too chewy.  The flavors were fairly traditional, but honestly, I didn’t end up eating much of this one because I really didn’t like the texture of the calamari.
The other dish we shared was great. It was the enchiladas de Mariscos ($19) which were homemade corn tortillas stuffed with shrimp and Mahi Mahi and covered in a Veracruz style creamy tomatillo sauce and also topped with some queso fresco.  These tasted really good. The sauce had a slight smokiness to it, like maybe the tomatillos used in the sauce were roasted.  The sauce was creamy, but not overly heavy and rich.  The seafood inside was tender and you could still enjoy its flavor even with the sauce.  Even the white rice served alongside had a nice nutty taste that made it stand out.  We both really enjoyed this one.
Finally, we shared a dessert. It was goat cheese caramel flavored ice cream flavored with a little rum and served with a Mexican hot fudge sauce on the side ($7.50).  The chocolate was nice and deeply flavored—maybe some cinnamon in there and there was a generous amount of ice cream. It was a nice way to end the meal, although it didn’t blow either of us away.
I am really glad we got to check out Frontera Grill, and we certainly had a really nice experience.  The food is very well done, although not earth shattering.
Frontera Grill
445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60610

Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon


  1. And now you can say you've eaten at Frontera! It's a good benchmark for your palate, basically everyone in Chicago compares Mexican places by whether they think they're better or worse than Frontera.

    Another good high end Mexican place walkable from the hotel zone on Michigan Ave is Salpicon. They've been in business since 1995, so they're doing something right. They also take reservations, so you don't have to deal with sweating out getting seated:

    1252 North Wells Street
    Chicago, IL 60610
    (312) 988-7811

  2. This August my wife and I treated ourselves to a weekend in Chicago. Eating at Frontera was sort of a pilgrimage for me, as I was first exposed to Bayless as an impressionable young lad (watching Great Chefs of Chicago on PBS, as I recall). His more recent PBS series, One Plate at a Time, has been a huge influence on me and the sort of Mexican cuisine I enjoy.
    Anyway, our meal at Frontera was wonderful and remains an excellent memory. My wife actually liked our meal at Xoco better, but I'd love to sample most everything on the menus of the three restaurants.
    Erin, I have photos if you'd be at all interested in them.

    Cheers! Tom

  3. thanks Pete. Sounds good.

    Tom, I used to obsessively watch the Rick Bayless shows on PBS too. Did you get to see him do a cooking demo here at Clark's a few years back? Pretty cool. And of course, I would love to see your pics. Love looking to food pics..!