When I started to plan a recent trip to Chicago, there were quite a few restaurants that I wanted to eat at, but I really wanted to make sure that I had a chance to get into one of chef Rick Bayless‘s well known Mexican restaurants while I was there. Bayless, who has actually be described as the “father of modern Mexican cuisine” is well known to many from his TV show ( usually broadcast on public broadcasting networks and on the cable network Create TV) and his excellent, and comprehensive, Mexican cookbooks.
Bayless has a group of three restaurants in the River North area of downtown Chicago: XOCO, Frontera and Topolobampo. Topolo has one Michelin star and offers a little bit more of a high-end Mexican food experience than the casual, vibrant Frontera. I made a reservation for dinner at Topolo. It actually shares a dining room and kitchen space with Frontera, and Topolo is just one room divided from the rest of the restaurant with a heavy curtain. It has a quieter, calmer feel, however, and made me think of the difference between first class and economy on an airplane (just because of that curtain!). I also ate at XOCO while I was in Chicago – but I wrote about that experience in another post!
Topolo offers a monthly changing, seasonal menu of Mexican classics and some updated takes on those dishes. Just about everything, including the different cheeses that accompany each dish, is homemade. They also offer both a 5-course tasting menu and a la carte options. I was tempted by the tasting menu, which offers half portions of more dishes, but ended up opting to go the a la carte route – and I have to say that some of the dishes were so good that I was very glad I had that full size serving!
Dinner started out with a side of guacamole topped with bacon and served with sliced cucumbers and jicama. The guacamole was excellent and the bacon on top was a great touch. The crisp veggies went well with it, but I also could easily have eaten this with a big bowl of tortilla chips.
Our first appetizer was a dish called Mochomos. This was “crunchy threads of beef brisket” served with onion strings, guacamole, spicy salsa roja and homemade cilantro tortillas for wrapping. The crispy brisket was amazing and came in very fine threads. Flavorful and with a great texture, this was a dish that I could eat again and again.
Hands down, Bayless’s Sopa Azteca was the best tortilla soup (possibly one of the best soups) that I’ve ever tasted – and I am not exaggerating one bit. The soup had an incredibly rich broth that was flavored with spicy, but not hot, pasilla chilis and coupled with tender grilled chicken, hand-made Jack cheese, crema and crisp tortilla strips. The broth was poured over the other ingredients table-side so that the tortillas would stay crisp as long as possible. Everything about this soup was perfect, from the combination of flavors to the way that all of the different textures worked together.
Our first main course was roasted lamb with a classic Oaxacan black mole, made with chilhuacle chiles and 28 other ingredients. The mole was rich and much smoother than you’d expect from something with that many ingredients! It was a great match for the lamb. The dish came with a black bean-huitlacoche tamalon (traditional tamale preparation), smoky wood-grilled green beans and some hibiscus-pickled green mango. I’m not a fan of huitlacoche, although the tamale itself was sweet and tender, so the lamb and the mole were the highlights of this dish
Our other main course was Gunthorp heritage pork three ways. It included wood grill-roasted pork loin, black bean-braised suckling shoulder and belly, as well as some crispy chicharron. All of the meat was excellent, but the shoulder was melt-in-your-mouth tender and it went very well with the black bean sauce served on the side. This dish came with fresh tortillas, and I layered pork, black rice and a bit of salsa to make some delicious tacos.
There almost wasn’t enough room for dessert, but their most popular dessert, Sueno de Horchata, sounded too good to pass up. Horchata is the name for a wide variety of drinks that start by soaking nuts or rice in water. This dessert included scoops of coconut horchata ice cream on top of a sticky coconut pudding, and accented with lemongrass gelatinas, crispy homemade puffed rice, and finished with an almond-rice horchata sauce. As an horchata fan, I though that the dessert was not only delicious, but was a very light and refreshing way to finish the meal.
Service at the restaurant was friendly and upbeat, and the entire staff knew a lot about every menu item and all the ingredients that went into the dishes. We were in one of the last seatings of the night, but the restaurant (and Frontera, as well) were packed until well past 10pm. I’d definitely recommend trying to make reservations (they book up several weeks in advance). Topolo serves some fantastic food and is well worth a trip if you’re going to be in the Chicago area. I’ll go back the next time I’m in the windy city – for that Sopa Azteca alone if nothing else!