Ever since I figuratively consumed the 30 ingredient black mole on Top Chef, I was infatuated with the idea of flying to Chicago and having it at Rick Bayless’ flagship. It was not until years later that this became reality and by the time I ventured into the American Midwest, the idea had festered into obsession.
My first night, I had designated for Portillo’s–to fulfill an equally deep seeded craving for a Chicago-style hot dog. On my walk over, I found the food gods in good cheer as I chanced upon just the restaurant I had drooled over many a reverie, alongside its sister Topolobampo. Shock and awe temporarily replaced my hunger for a Chicago dog, and I was replaced with a younger, pre-New York self. Dare I return to face the line at the Mecca of mole?
My hopes were badgered by friends in the next two days. With my limited time in Chicago, a 2 hour wait seemed to stink of excess. As day 3 dwindled, we found ourselves en route to Lou Malnati’s, deep dish heaven on earth, when I dug my heels and turned.
My persistence was awarded with a buzzer, the keys to the mole kingdom. I was to be summoned in an hour.
I had certainly done worse for ramen, sushi and a chef’s table. Buzzer in hand, I waited patiently, then inebriatedly, for my coveted spot. The 200 varieties of tequila kept me company, in cocktails and in spirit. By the time I was called for seating, I was buzzed with notice, booze and excitement. Sitting outside, even torrential summer storms could put on no damper.
As relative newcomers to Mexican cuisine, we left ourselves in the hands of our waitress. The one item requested was mole, black mole, which was to be declared early on in our meal to be the king of its category. We start with a trio of street foods, the first of which came the potosinas (middle), empanadas disguised as enchiladas–fresh cheese, avocados–each bite was delicious yet somewhat indescribable. The flavors were familiar in that they have been imitated, but to have them unadulterated was almost puzzling. We continue onto tlacoyos and sopes (left), which was also a one bite wonder. It’s been some time now since I’ve eaten this meal, and so I think this last one is called motoles – a holiday street food a bit like a mini pocket. What I do remember, is the shreds of cactus on top, which were probably pickled with a strong kick of salt. Certainly it has stuck out in my mind.
There was some dishes in between, but the piece de resistance waited in the wings. It came a not unappealing ying yang of black mole and cheesed out mash potatoes. Trembling with anticipation, I leaned the side of the fork against the brisket and a third color was introduced. The protein caved, and delivered on the promise of flavor. The mole was a brilliant mess of sensations, with hints of chocolate. I won’t pretend to know the others in the profile, I just know if it’s good enough for two heads of state, it’s good enough for me.
Finally, the surprise treat of the day, the flourless chocolate cake – I remember little else other than for the fact that I sat with what was left of my inebriated intellect, unable to feel anything else but happiness. Luckily, there’s a recipe: http://www.rickbayless.com/recipe/view?recipeID=161
I walked away and around the loop in a drunken, happy daze. Frontera Grill lived up to the unreal expectations I had nurtured for years. Being from a culture whose food is masqueraded around everyday, I couldn’t help but muse and hope that one day we might have a champion for Chinese cuisine the same way Mexican food had Rick Bayless. I so admire the chef who is able to create a craving for the culturally accurate, against all odds and all Taco Bells. I toast my tequila infused drink to Rick Bayless – perhaps I shall catch you at Topolobampo.
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Chicago, IL 60654