There are a few restaurants in Chicago that are true Chicago institutions. New dining hot spots arise constantly, while the authentic Chicago classics try to hold their ground. What’s the secret to booming business and constant rave reviews? A seasonal, yet innovative menu, stellar service that’s approachable, yet professional, and an atmosphere that is warm, welcoming, and stays true to the restaurant’s theme.
Recently, we went to brunch at Frontera Grill, which is a restaurant that’s almost as old as I am. And, trust me, these days neither the restaurant or I are spring chickens. Chef Rick Bayless is the brains behind this Chicago Mexican staple. To name a few of his many accomplishments, he’s won countless awards, has a salsa and chip line that’s sold at most grocery stores across the country, and is now releasing his 9th cookbook called More Mexican Everyday.
Frontera Grill is like the middle child in the Bayless restaurant family. It’s not as refined as its older brother Topolobompo, but not as casual as its younger sibling, Xoco. This trifecta is the most well-known, under the Bayless name.
Born and raised in Chicago, I had never experienced Frontera Grill, or Topolobompo. Frontera, as it’s commonly referred to, is the only restaurant of the two which serves brunch. What better way to introduce myself to the Bayless restaurant scene, than with Saturday morning brunch.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to come by reservations at Frontera. I kid you not when I say that people line up around the block in anticipation of Frontera’s 10:30 a.m. opening. You can imagine my excitement when I was able to lock down a Saturday morning reso at this River North hot spot.
There’s so much for the eye to see, when entering Frontera. While dimly lit, the restaurant’s décor brings the space to life. The walls are lined with colorful Mexican folk art, accolades galore, and charming, rustic Mexican artifacts.
As soon as we sat down, we were served the most delicious bowl of Mexican spiced nuts and seeds. Their smokey flavor was authentic and light, without being overpowering.
Do I go with a savory and filling Bloody Mary, or, do I opt for the crisp, fresh mimosa? The brunch struggle is real. The waitress sold me on Frontera’s version of the Bloody Mary: a spicy house-made tomato mixture, made with tequila, instead of vodka. It was strong, spicy, and delicious…exactly what this Bitch would want. My girlfriend ordered the Mezcal Margarita, which was refreshing and most importantly, not too sweet.
Speaking of sugar, my sweet tooth led me to our first food selection of the day. We started with the homemade Mexican pastry basket, which included four delicious goodies. The Concha was similar to a sweet bun and had a cinnamon and sugar topping. The Oreja (caramelized pastry which was a little dry) and Gordita de Pilconcillo (interesting doughnut made out of corn-masa) were both unique and tasty, but my favorite by far was the Huachibola, which was sweet roll sprinkled with non-perils, and stuffed with the most delicious cheese filling.
The next decision was one of the toughest: do we order egg- based brunch entrees, or traditional Mexican entrees such as tacos, enchiladas, etc.? After much deliberation, we decided to go with the brunch options. I could certainly tell this was a place I’d be returning to, so I knew I’d have another chance to try the Mexican classics.
After all the sweets, I opted for something veggie-centric. I ordered the Eggs a la Mexicana, which were egg whites scrambled with an assortment of Mexican local veggies. All my favorites were included: tomatoes, serrano chilis, green onions, cilantro (which can be polarizing for some, but a true love of mine), and avocado. Joining this farmer’s scramble, was a side of black beans sprinkled with queso fresco. The salsa verde that was layered in the egg whites, tasted like it was made 10 minutes ago with fresh tomatillos that were grown out back.
Per the waitress’s recommendation, the other entrée we ordered was the Chilaquiles, which were smothered in a red salsa, drizzled in a homeade crema, and sprinkled with Mexican cheese . The portions at Frontera are quite large, especially for the price point, and this tortilla-egg-cheese casserole was no exception. The spring mix that was served alongside the Chilaquiles was a fresh way to break up the striking flavors.
As we walked out brunch—admiring all the awards and recognitions that line the wall—it was clear why and how Frontera has been around for so long. Anyone up for a Cinco De Mayo dinner party on Frontera’s patio? This Bitch is in!
The Bitches say: A+ A Chicago favorite that features locally sourced ingredients on a menu full of innovative Mexican favorites.
445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60654-4682
Frontera Grill is open for brunch on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.