When I found out that I was going to get to go to our big annual tradeshow in Chicago (there was some doubt for a couple months), I immediately headed to OpenTable to make a reservation for Topolobampo. I knew I was going to be in Chicago November 27 – December 1. I thought it might be a nice place for a team dinner so I checked all of the dates and times for our team. In the end, I was only to find one opening for 4 on Saturday, November 27 at 9 p.m. There were no other openings for the entire time I was in Chicago. The date of this search? August 30. That’s right, 3 full months out, I was only able to find one table at 9 at night.
So, what makes Topolobampo such a hot ticket? Quite simply one man, Rick Bayless. Rick Bayless is a James Beard Award Winner, a Top Chef Master and the preeminent expert in Mexican cuisine in the U.S. (among his many other accolades). Not to mention that Topolobampo just became the first Mexican restaurant to win a coveted Michelin Star. I learned about Rick Bayless from Top Chef Masters and actually had the opportunity to eat at his more casual restaurant, Frontera Grill, last year. But this year I was determined to take it to the max.
Since I had secured a reservation for 4, I invited some of my colleagues (Dave, Linnea and Megan) to join me for dinner. Linnea jumped at it right away. Dave hemmed and hawed a little reminding me that he was from Southern California and wondering about how good Mexican food could be in Chicago, but saying that he trusted me. And Megan was a last minute addition. We all jumped in a cab and headed over about 45 minutes before our reservation, figuring we could at least grab a margarita or two before dinner.
Topolobampo and Frontera Grill actually share the same building, and when you enter, you go through Frontera. And it was packed! They usually don’t accept reservation to Frontera, so it’s first come, first serve with a lot of spill-over into the bar. We told the hostess we were there, and then made our way to the bar where we were greeted by a gleaming tower of tequila. After a little bit of ooohing and aaaahing, and leveraging the girls to get the bartender’s attention, we decided to simply go for their signature margarita. It was a delicious combination of tequila, homemade limonada that went down so smoothly.
Before we had finished our margaritas, the hostess came back and let us know that our table was ready, and we headed through the hustle and bustle of Frontera to the more calm Topolobampo, which is in way an odd feel for a Mexican restaurant. When I (and probably you as well) think about a lot energy and festiveness. Plates that are full with delicious looking food. And that’s exactly what Frontera Grill is all about. But Topolobampo is 100% fine dining Mexican style. White tablecloths, wine glasses, beautiful plates that no food is ever put on. We sat down, ordered another round of margaritas, and started looking at the menus. It really came down to which chef’s menu I was going to go with; and it was the pork belly that led me to the Oaxacan tasting menu. I’m on a huge pork belly kick right now (food of the Gods!). The thing is, don’t ask me what everything was. I forgot to write it down, and the menu changes so frequently that when I went back online to look it up, it was gone.
With so many courses and everything, I decided that the block of images below would be the best way to go through everything. But the simple fact is that the food was incredible. It was all of the flavors that you would expect in Mexican food like chiles and peppers and certain cheeses and pork, but done in just a unique and elegant way. We went through 2 appetizers and five courses and everything was so unique and different and delicious. Dave kept saying “I’m so full, I can’t eat anything else” until the next plate showed up and it was so good that he would eat it and repeat the line.
The night before I had dined (wait, what? Did I really say dined…egads) at Cafe Coyote in San Diego. You can read the post on that one, but the food was delicious in a what-you-expect-when-you-think-Mexican kind of way. This dinner at Topolobampo simply blew the doors off what you think of when you think Mexican. The best part about it though was that it didn’t “ruin Mexican” for me; like sometimes you go to some place so good that eating the just ok is always a let down (read Phad Thai after having Phad Thai in Thailand). Instead it gave me a different perspective and appreciation of what Mexican can be. The only downside to the whole evening and the meal was that I wasn’t able to try the Oaxacan black mole as it wasn’t offered. It was a dish that he prepared and served in the finale of Top Chef Masters (which he won).
If you know you are going to be in Chicago, and have the opportunity to plan ahead, I absolutely recommend Topolobampo as a must visit. And if you find yourself in Chicago, definitely consider hitting Frontera Grill. The wait might be an hour or so, but it’s worth it. Head into the bar, order a margarita, and enjoy all of the energy throughout the restaurant.