Chef Rick Bayless on his favorite Chicago restaurants

Chef Rick Bayless of Topolobampo, Frontera, and Xoco in Chicago
Chef Rick Bayless of Topolobampo, Frontera, and Xoco in Chicago. Photo credit: Elledge Photography.

Hometown: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Occupation: Chef and Owner, Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco, Tortas Frontera, Frontera Fresco; Host, Mexico – One Plate at a Time (PBS)
Years worked as a chef: 35+
Years lived in Chicago: 28
Awards: Winner, Top Chef Masters (2009)
National Chef of the Year, James Beard Foundation (1995)
1 Michelin star for Topolobampo (2011-present)
Outstanding Restaurant for Frontera Grill, James Beard Foundation (2007)

Go to Chef Bayless’s shortlist

What do you love best about Chicago’s food scene?

Chicago chefs are always searching, pushing, looking for ways to get better, to push food forward. The culture here is not to sit around thinking of reasons why something won’t work; we act, we try new things and – this is important – we support each other. For residents and visitors, that means Chicago is full of inventive, delicious food that is unique to our great city.

Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to Chicago should try. 

Fat Rice: It’s refreshing to see chefs tackle a cuisine that is so unexplored – in this case, Macanese. The signature dish, Arroz Gordo, is a must.

Acadia: Some people prefer to eat in the bar area here, where I hear they serve a great burger. I wouldn’t know – I prefer the stunning plates they put out in the more formal dining room.

HotChocolate: I love Mindy Segal’s pastries and desserts. Whenever there’s a celebration at my house, there’s usually a cake by Mindy.

Arroz gordo from Fat Rice. Photo credit: Kin Lee, therobotchef.com
Arroz gordo from Fat Rice. Photo credit: Kin Lee, therobotchef.com

You’re an expert in Mexican cuisine, so where in Chicago do you like to go for Mexican food? 

If I’m looking for Mexican food outside of my restaurants, I’m usually heading to the family-run restaurants such as Don Pedro Carnitas, which has some of the best carnitas in the world. I also love the tamales at Restaurant La Casa Del Pueblo, and the tres leches cake at Kristoffer’s Café.

From the time you opened Frontera Grill in 1987 to now, how have you seen the Mexican food scene change in Chicago?

Mexican food has followed the trajectory that almost all food in Chicago – and the rest of the country – has: It’s become smarter, more ambitious, more authentic, more sustainable, more inventive.

What was it about Mexican cuisine that initially attracted you more than any other cuisine? 

Everything: the tang of tomatillos, the heat of serranos, the smokiness of roasted poblanos, the balanced complexity of moles, the beauty of a perfectly made tortilla and, of course, the generous spirit of the people who make the food.

If you had to pick one dish at your restaurants that is your absolute personal favorite, which would it be and why?

Honestly, my favorite is usually what’s new. I get so excited about our seasonal menus, and I think we’re getting better all the time, so I end up having a new favorite every month!

What food places do you love to visit over and over again?

I love The Butcher & Larder, a great butcher store run by former chefs. And I head to Green City Market, the farmers’ market I helped found many years ago, as much as I can. It really is one of the best markets in the country these days.

We have to ask: what’s your favorite Chicago deep dish?

I don’t eat a lot of deep dish, but I think Pequod’s makes a good one.

Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Chicago’s airports or hotels you would recommend?

Well, I think Tortas Frontera is pretty good …

What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Chicago do you go to get it? 

Doughnuts—and the doughnut scene in Chicago has been blowing up lately, which has been feeding my habit. I love the doughnuts from Doughnut Vault. (But if you’re going to send me some, please note: I prefer cake over yeast.)

Gingerbread stack doughnuts from Doughnut Vault
Gingerbread stack doughnuts from Doughnut Vault.

Are there any foods native to Chicago that you particularly like and can’t really be found anywhere else?

You have to stand in line, but Garrett’s Popcorn can be worth it!

Not a lot of chefs can say they’ve acted in a play, but you’ve done it twice on two major stages in Chicago. What was it like to co-create and perform in “Cascabel,” and do you hope to be on stage again soon?

It was the fulfillment of a dream, really. Theater and cooking have so much in common – both experiences are uniquely of the moment, both experiences have the ability to connect us with others. I don’t know when I’ll be on stage again … it’s a lot of work!

Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Chicago? 

Catch some theater. Chicago has an incredible theater scene, from tiny storefronts to big players like SteppenwolfThe GoodmanLookingglass and Chicago Shakespeare.

Chef Bayless’s Shortlist:

Frontera Grill, 445 N. Clark Street (River North); Mexican, lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.

Topolobampo, 445 N. Clark Street (River North); Mexican, lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.

Xoco, 449 N. Clark Street (River North); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.

Tortas Frontera, Terminals 1, 3 and 5 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 10 S. Dearborn Street (Loop); Mexican, breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, closed Saturday-Sunday.

Frontera Fresco, 111 N. State Street (Loop); Mexican, lunch Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Fat Rice, 2957 W. Diversey Avenue (Logan Square); Macanese, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Friday-Sunday, closed Monday.

Acadia, 1639 S. Wabash Avenue (Near South Side); contemporary American, dinner Wednesday-Sunday, brunch Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday.

Mindy’s HotChocolate, 1747 N. Damen Avenue (Wicker Park); American, pastries and desserts, breakfast Tuesday-Friday, lunch Wednesday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday.

Don Pedro Carnitas, 1113 W. 18th Street (Pilsen); Mexican, breakfast and lunch daily, early dinner Monday-Saturday.

La Casa del Pueblo, 1834 S. Blue Island Avenue (Pilsen); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Kristoffer’s Café and Bakery, 1733 S. Halsted Street (Pilsen); Mexican, breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.

The Butcher & Larder, 1026 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Noble Square); butcher shop, open Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.

Green City Market, several locations; farmers’ market, open days vary depending on location and month.

Pequod’s Pizza, 2207 N. Clybourn Avenue (DePaul); Chicago-style deep dish pizza, lunch and dinner daily.

The Doughnut Vault, 401 1/2 N. Franklin Street (River North); doughnuts, open daily until sold out.

Garrett Popcorn Shops, multiple locations in downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport; specialty popcorn, most locations open daily.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted Street (Lincoln Park).

Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street (Loop).

Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan Avenue (Near North Side).

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Avenue (Navy Pier).


About the Chef: Google “Mexican cuisine chefs” and you’ll see that “Rick Bayless” dominates the search results.

It’s not surprising, considering his work and accomplishments. For more than three decades, Chef Bayless has fully devoted himself to the food and flavors of Mexico. In the 1980s, he and his wife lived there, immersing themselves in the culture, meeting food producers and local cooks, and intensively studying the cuisine in all 31 states. With eight years worth of research collected in Mexico, Bayless wrote a cookbook and opened his first restaurant in Chicago. Fast forward, and his culinary empire now includes multiple restaurants and cookbooks, a food product line, and an Emmy-nominated cooking series. In 2012, the Mexican government recognized Bayless’ efforts to promote Mexican cuisine with the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the most prestigious decoration given to foreigners.

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