Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
It seems like the food world has an enormous hunka-hunka burnin' love for Rick Bayless. I haven't experienced much of his food aside from a single trip to Xoco forever ago, and I did happen to eat at Frontera Fresco at Old Orchard Mall (of all places) in Skokie. I swear I wasn't mall walking. And, oh yeah, I went to another Frontera Fresco at Macy's. So, three brief trips. Even though I've had plenty of tastes, I'm still on the fence on whether or not I like his style.
For those of you who work in the Loop, Rick (I'll pretend we're on a first name basis now) has another little stand in the food court in the Chase Tower. Tortas Frontera focuses mainly on the art of the Mexican sandwich, the delicious torta. I'm used to the version served at a lot of Mexican restaurants here in Chicago—the messy, wear-on-your-face version with meat, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and avocado. But Rick's versions are different, both elevated and rustic at the same time.
Tortas Frontera only has one entree salad on the menu, and you can add on a protein if you like. The taqueria salad with smoky shrimp ($7.95 salad + $1.50 shrimp) is the sleeper hit. The salad is dressed with a refreshing avocado-lime dressing, and every bite of the salad works together as a whole package. There's a lot of components, too: Romaine, arugula, avocado, caramelized onions, roasted poblanos, radishes, crunchy tortilla strips, and cotija cheese.
Salads usually don't wow me, but in this case, I'm suitably impressed at how the busy flavors give each other massive amounts of flavor high-fives. I wasn't expecting much from the shrimp, but they have a slightly smoky flavor without an overly strong shellfish aftertaste, like you get from cheap shrimp.
There are torta specials as well, like the pork belly torta ($10.50). It's strongly smoky Nueske's bacon with black beans, roasted zucchini, arugula, chipotle sauce, and cotija cheese. Ever since Baconfest, I swore I'd punch the next piece of bacon I saw in the crotch, but it turns out I'll make an exception for this sandwich. If you've ever had Nueske's bacon, you'll know it is super smoky and sometimes overwhelming, but it's used sparingly enough so you won't get angry at it. The arugula adds a bitter green flavor, and the zucchini, though not too flavorful, adds a soft, almost meaty texture to each bite.
Every time I've been to one of Rick's restaurants, I've had the cochinita pibil ($8.95), which is a Yucatán-style pulled pork sandwich, but for some reason, this sandwich didn't turn out well, and I've even had this exact version before. The pork itself is tender and flavorful with a distinctly acidic flavor, but the excessive pickled onions on top permeate everything. The end result? A very sour sandwich. Those are two words you don't often see next to each other (like my Twitter handle).
The bread in all the sandwiches is thick, chewy, and satisfying, sort of like a ciabatta with a deeper flavor and a crisper crust, and it really makes these tortas stand out among the crowd of other tortas we've had as the Serious Eats Chicago crew.
Now, the fully-dressed guacamole ($5.25) is totally my style. It's your typical guacamole with a sprinkling of sundried tomatoes, bacon pieces, pepitas, cotija cheese, and spicy roasted peppers. Like the salad, it sounds like a noisy bunch, and it is. But the combination brings a ton of flavor to the mild guacamole, especially the concentrated hits of the sundried tomato. The pepitas also bring a satisfying nutty crunch which is a lot of fun.
The various aguas frescas ($2.50) are just as flavorful as the rest of the food. Starting from the left, there's the raspberry and prickly pear, lime, and mango agua fresca. They're all rocking a strong, very sweet lime flavor, and despite the color of the raspberry prickly pear mix or the mango, you don't get as much of those flavors as you do the bright tart lime juice.
Even after some really good items and a sandwich that sort of fell flat, I'm still perched on that fence on how much I enjoy his food. It's just personal preference. Another thing I'm not sure about? Whether or not you can call Rick's facial hair a full beard. Or if it's a separate mustache and beard. The world will never know.
10 S Dearborn St, Chicago, IL 60603 (map)
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.