Appetite for Travel: Frontera Grill

For a taste of terrific Mexican cuisine, head just south of the border — to Chicago’s Frontera Grill


Published:

Our flight to Santa Fe included a stopover at Midway Airport in Chicago. But the connection, which was supposed to leave 45 minutes later, was extended to a three-hour layover.

So, rather than get annoyed, we looked at each other, and almost in unison, shouted, “Frontera Grill!”

Within minutes, we were in a cab and blasting down the Ryan Expressway and into downtown Chicago for a quick lunch at what has long been the first stop every time we’ve hit Chicago for the last 20 years.

Frontera Grill is located in a storefront that’s a five-minute walk from the famed Miracle Mile, Michigan Avenue’s shopping district. It shares the space with its sister restaurant, the upper-end Topolobampo. Frontera is decorated in an eclectic style best described as big American city meets Mexican tile, art, and color. But what has always set it apart is the depth, variety, freshness, and intensity of the flavors in every dish.

Frontera Grill was a pioneer of sorts. In the late 1980s, Mexican food meant cheap, greasy, and hot, as in Tex-Mex.

At the time, Mexican cookbook writer Diana Kennedy and a handful of others were struggling to pen early works on the refinement and complexity of true Mexican cuisine.

But Frontera Grill owner Rick Bayless was the first to really bring it to life with his unique little restaurant, and soon it began changing our attitudes of Mexican food actually being a cuisine, which turns out to be even more complicated and time-consuming than French, Italian, or Chinese.

Take Frontera’s ceviche alone: Hawaiian blue marlin marinated in lime, tomatoes, olives, cilantro, jícama and green chile, and served on crispy tostaditas. It’s fresh and delightful.

Bayless’ jícama salad includes cucumber and pineapple, lime and crushed guajillo peppers.

I’m always stuck on the tacos al carbon. The meat is wood-grilled sliced and served with roasted pepper rajas, two salsas, frijoles, guacamole, and homemade tortillas. They remain the best anywhere, in my book.

Another perpetual delight is chicken taquitos: cigar-size taquitos filled with chicken and poblano chiles, sour cream, salsa verde, añejo cheese, and guacamole. They’re mouthwatering, with such distinctive flavors.

What distinguishes Frontera Grill is that, while Bayless introduces variants such as Hawaiian marlin, an allowance for where we are or a personal preference, the basics of every dish and the multi-layered preparations, shortcut in Americanized versions, are indeed totally pure. They are deep. They take time, and they are done right, always to a fabulous result.

Bayless, a University of Michigan grad, is still remembered fondly in Ann Arbor’s small culinary community for his Mexican cooking when he was a graduate student.

And best of all, Frontera Grill won’t break your bank account. We rarely spend more than $80 for two for lunch, and $120 for dinner.

Frontera Grill is loud, brassy, fun and always jammed — it seats only 65 — although I’ve rarely had to wait more than 20 minutes for a table. We knew from many previous visits that if you’re in a hurry, hang around the bar and you’re likely to get two bar stools in a few minutes. Eating at the bar is just fine at Frontera. We made it back to the gate at Midway for our Sante Fe flight with 15 minutes to spare.

445 N. Clark St., Chicago; 312-661-1434.

Edit Module
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »Related Content

Cold Winter, Hot Sauce

Locally made condiments bring on the firepower

Polishing a Greasy Spoon

Rock City Eatery chef/owner elevates burgers and hot dogs at second Hamtramck restaurant, Campau Tower

Sharing the Love

Timothy Mintline of Mimi’s Bistro offers up a family-style carrot-ginger soup

Upper Crust

Grosse Pointe Park’s Cornwall Bakery is (finally) open, producing European breads, croissants, tortes, muffins, pies, and more

Reviving a Classic

Change of 220 Merrill’s ownership has re-energized one of Birmingham’s longtime favorite gathering places
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. Winter wine-derland
    Winery visits can be just as good — if not better — in the off season
  2. Reviving a Classic
    Change of 220 Merrill’s ownership has re-energized one of Birmingham’s longtime favorite...
  3. Girl's Best Friend
    All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold — and diamonds aren’t the only way to add an extra...
  4. Artfully Plated
    One-upping the standard pop-up dinner in one of Detroit’s hidden architectural gems
  5. Brewery Profile - Tapistry Brewing Company
    Since opening in July of 2013, Tapistry Brewing has spent the last year perfecting their recipes...
  6. Upper Crust
    Grosse Pointe Park’s Cornwall Bakery is (finally) open, producing European breads, croissants,...
  7. Winter Wonderland
    More than 5 million LEDs transform a Detroit Zoo stroll into a wild experience
  8. Cold Winter, Hot Sauce
    Locally made condiments bring on the firepower
  9. Polishing a Greasy Spoon
    Rock City Eatery chef/owner elevates burgers and hot dogs at second Hamtramck restaurant, Campau...
  10. Conversation Starter
    Writer-director Mike Binder hopes his new custody battle film Black or White spurs...