Rick Bayless is Chicago's original celebrity chef, and Frontera Grill, opened in 1987, is the venue that launched countless cookbooks, a TV show, salsas, frozen pizzas and a foundation that supports local family farms. Still, folks line up on Clark Street for a chance to sample the rustic, earthy moles and fresh corn, perfumed masa tortillas as if Frontera was the hottest new restaurant blowing through the Windy City.
Unless you've got a party of five or greater, the place won't take reservations, so any visit will usually start with a lengthy wait at the front bar. Resting under a blue, ceramic arch, with a herd of paper-mache animals hanging from the ceiling, the bar offers a festive start to the evening. There's also a group of Tim Burtonesque, upside-down lampshades hanging over the bar, but after a few rounds of limey Topolo margaritas, they'll feel like they're right-side-up, and your long wait will be over.
The dining room is a simple rustic box with maple-wood-backed chairs, sun-faded, adobe-clad surfaces, yellow and orange pastel-colored walls, and bright, Mexican-style paintings. This is a restaurant so committed to seasonality and local farm produce that long-time chef Tracey Vowell left last year to farm huitlacoche, a tasty, inky corn fungus that's often called the Mexican black truffle. No matter, her replacement Bryan Enyart produces incredible fare, including fluffy, half-moon goat-cheese-stuffed empanadas, garlic-marinated and grill-roasted Maple Creek pork with tomatillo-Anaheim chile sauce and smoky chipotle-glazed sea scallops with red peanut mole. Appetizers range from $3-$24, and entrees $15.50-28.50.
Average cost: $21-$30
Centerstage Reviewer: Michael Nagrant