Top Eats (and Top Chefs!) in Chicago

by Nancy Bestor

I love good food. I love to cook it, I love to order it, and I love to eat it.  I also love the Bravo television show Top Chef. Yes, I know, it is reality television. But I like to think it is civilized reality television (no comments from the peanut gallery please). So it was with great delight on a recent trip to Chicago that Bob and I were able to eat at Rick Bayless’ popular Frontera Grill. An award winning chef and cookbook author, Mr. Bayless is well-known for his authentic yet inventive Mexican cuisine. A former Top Chef Master competitor, Bayless currently stars in the PBS’ show Mexico-One Plate at a Time.

Hailed by many as the best restaurant in Chicago, Bob and I decided to head to Frontera on a Friday night, without a reservation. Many reviewers on Yelp, an online rating and review website, said they could not get a reservation at Frontera for months. Throwing caution to the wind, and knowing we were perfectly happy to wait in the bar with a drink, or three, until a table was ready, we arrived at Frontera about 7pm and were told our wait would be an hour and a half.

Undaunted, we headed into the crowded bar and ordered Blood Orange Margaritas, one of many seasonal margaritas on the menu. This delicious concoction featured fresh-squeezed Beck Grove organic blood orange juice, Cointreau, Cazadores blanco tequila, and fresh-squeezed lime juice for $11. A great start to the evening. Things only improved from there. (You might be wondering if it was because I drank several more seasonal margaritas and was feeling no pain. I’ll never tell.) Our one and a half hour wait turned out to be just 50 minutes (I like that – under promising and over delivering).

Our meal began with a trio of ceviche that included albacore, shrimp and calamari, each in a different sauce. Outstanding. As a main course, Bob had the duck mole, which was beyond delicious, and I chose the spicy red chile and wood grilled carne asada, also super yummy. For dessert we split the tres leches cake with fruit and our 18-year marriage was in jeopardy as we argued over the last bite. Yes, it was that good.

From start to finish, EVERYTHING that touched our mouths at Frontera Grill was superb. I would highly recommend a visit. Mr. Bayless has two other popular Chicago restaurants, right next door to Frontera Grill. Topolobampo is a higher end version of Frontera Grill, rumored to be the favorite restaurant of our president, Barack Obama. And XOCO is a quick service Mexican street food restaurant.

Sadly for me, I did NOT get to meet Rick Bayless, but funny enough (for all you Top Chef fans) I did meet and get my picture taken with Italian chef Fabio Viviani. And, in case you are wondering, he is just as cute in person as he is on TV.