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.