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

Local Pie Makers Offer Variety of Fillings

Area bakers offer alternative fillings for holiday pastry.

A Taste of Paris

Cannelle Patisserie chef Matt Knio’s baked goods are turning up in restaurants and markets across metro Detroit

Detroit Itinerary: Ways to Spend A Day or Two in the 'D'

Make a day (or a weekend) of it with this trek of Motown. Just remember to bring a pair of comfortable shoes.

10 Exotic Honeymoon Destinations

From pristine islands to a hidden desert oasis, our top 10 honeymoon destinations are well off the beaten path.

The Big Dipper

Garden Fresh Gourmet is a shining star in the metro Detroit Food scene
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. An Animated Life
    As Rob Paulsen prepares to publish his memoir, the Hollywood veteran and voice behind some of the...
  2. An Hour With ... Teddy Dorsette III
    President, Detroit Black Deaf Advocates
  3. State of the Arts
  4. Gold Standard
    Tucked into an industrial strip in Ann Arbor, a new restaurant offers French fare
  5. A New Noodle Shop on the Block
    Midtown Detroit welcomes Urban Ramen
  6. Drink Beer, Do Good
    Local breweries and pubs jump on the charity bandwagon
  7. Recipe: Roast Boneless Pork Loin With Tart Cherry Chutney
    Executive chef at Ford’s Garage, Darin Thompson’s boneless pork loin marvel
  8. Business Class
    Trim suits, creative layers, and crisp white shirts - Fall's wardrobe essentials are fitting for...
  9. In Tune
    Influenced by its storied past, Willis Show Bar sets the tone for a nostalgic sound
  10. 13th Annual Best of Detroit Party
    On June 29, Hour Detroit brought the Best of Detroit issue to life at the 13th annual Best of...