6:03 pm: O’Hare airport. Chicago, Illinois. I’m here for a wedding. My plane lands early.
6:22 pm: I get the rental car and I have a few hours to kill before my wife and friends arrive. I was planning on just eating somewhere near the airport and taking it easy, but I realize I have enough time to make it the city and back. I’m not in Chicago often and have really been wanting to get to Frontera Grill and eat more of Rick Bayless’ food.
7:15 pm: I park a few blocks away and walk through the doors that hold Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. Of course there is no availability, but I can order food at the bar. As I walk that way, towards me walks David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, full mustache. It’s the height of election season, so I’m glad he came here. What would the outcome have been like if he went to Fogo de Chao or somewhere? I dodge Axelrod and peak a couple getting up from the corner of the bar, the only open spots, and I dive onto a barstool.
7:22 pm: I flag down the bartender and order a Mirasol, brewed in conjunction with Bayless and Goose Island, it was designed to pair with the food, particularly ceviche. It’s a Belgian golden ale brewed with Belgian yeast, tangerine zest, green coriander, green tea, and grapefruit. It’s citrusy and full of an herbal spiciness. I order my food.
7:35 pm: A couple beside me begin chatting to me as they have a drink and wait for a table in the main dining room. They are here for vacation from Omaha or Milwaukee or somewhere. They saw Rick on Top Chef masters and wanted to come. They don’t know taco from tlacoyo, but they are excited about it. They talk to me about the Mirasol beer and find it interesting it was brewed to pair with food. Education is in progress.
7:45 pm: My food arrives. Duck in Pasilla-Huitlacoche Sauce with corn husk-steamed tamales with sweet corn, smoky green beans, cheese chicharron. While I’ll never make up my mind on an entire restaurant on a single dish, I can see why Bayless is so successful. Nothing tastes exactly like it would in Mexico, but that’s not a bad thing. It couldn’t anyway, I’m not in Mexico. Still, it’s probably the best Mexican style duck I’ve ever eaten. The chile rubbed duck breasts are from Gunthorp Farms. The pasilla chiles and huitlacoche (corn fungus) are grown locally in the Chicago area. It’s Chicago Mexican food, but again, not a bad thing. It’s real Mexican food. *A month later I hear Rick speak at the CIA’S Latin Flavors conference in San Antonio, Texas. There he described how bringing in ingredients from far away always felt wrong to him. It actually the food less authentic. Instead he spent decades building up Chicago area suppliers so that he could source most of his ingredients locally. “Some would say that’s not Mexican food,” he said. “I would say it’s the most authentic. It’s the personal expression of where I live and where I cook.”
8:35pm: I finish eating. I pay. I get in the car and drive towards O’Hare.
9:20pm: I arrive at the airport. I receive a text. They are waiting for the bags. I begin to circle.
Frontera Grill & Topolobampo
445 North Clark Street
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.