Maybe you caught him in a stray episode of Mexico: One Plate at a Time, or watched him win Top Chef Masters. Or maybe you suddenly decided one day that those lackluster bean burritos and soggy fish tacos just weren’t cutting it – that Mexican food could be a higher art form. Either way, you’re a fan of Rick Bayless, and you’ve got some misguided friends who need to understand just how amazing Mexican food can be. Time for a Clark Street crawl.
Frontera Grill (445 N. Clark St.)
Many schools of meditation tout mindful eating: slowing down to appreciate the delight of textures and flavors food provides us. For your first shot at this, get thee to Frontera. The first (and largest) of Rick Bayless’ clustered restaurant triad on Clark Street, Frontera‘s melding of sensory input is immediately apparent in the colorful Mexican artwork on the walls and fanciful decor on the tables. The wait staff and sommelier beguile you with tales of flavor combinations and wine pairings. And this is before you even get to the menu: a magical-realism novel of the culinary history of Mexican cuisine. Order the chicken tamales, but make sure your noob friends know to peel the banana leaf off first. Stop for a minute to pick through the contrasting complexities: sweet caramelized onions, aromatic shaved fennel, and a kick of poblano chili peppers.
Xoco (449 N. Clark St.)
We would ask if you like hot chocolate, but let’s face it: We pretty much already know the answer. Named after the Aztec word for “little sister,” Xoco is Rick Bayless’s take on Mexican street food. Line up in the morning for a quick breakfast of huevos rancheros, or pork belly chilaquiles – or come for a more leisurely lunch. As you sit on a bar stool, surrounded by a colorful tile interior, you can practically feel the breezes of a Mexican surf village. Swig down an easy-drinking Negra Modelo and bite into an albondigas (meatball) or carnitas sandwich straight from the wood-fired oven, while you plan your next trip to Puerto Vallarta. End your meal with that rich hot chocolate, which Xoco makes by roasting and hand-grinding beans shipped straight from Mexico.
Topolobampo (445 N. Clark St.)
You’ve graduated and hit the big leagues now. Your taste buds are ready for the artistry of Bayless’s signature restaurant, the one with a Michelin star. Be sure to come hungry. And ready for an adventure. One of the first fine-dining Mexican restaurants in the U.S., Topolobampo offers tasting menus – three, five, or seven courses. Go for the perfect seven, whose courses are each named a different adjective. You start “fresh,” with a winter vegetable escabeche – which features hearty starches, spices, and fresh greens – and end up “luxurious.” That’s warm corn cake with corn ice cream and caramel corn, and it’s sure to turn your friends into Mexican-food fanatics.