After watching Rick Bayless win Top Chef: Masters in 2009 with his mole sauce, I made it a goal to eat at one of his restaurants. I really admired that the chef with the most positive attitude, least amount of competitiveness, and best enthusiasm won.
I also think Rick Bayless has one of the coolest stories about how he came to cooking. He was doing doctoral work in Anthropological Linguistics in Mexico and got so interested in the food that he turned to studying Mexican cuisine. The mole that won Top Chef was a recipe that he has been working on for years, fine tuning and crafting.
One of the other things I really admire about Rick Bayless is that while at this point in his career he could have just high-end restaurants with impossible to get reservations, he hasn’t gone that route. While in Chicago he does have a high end restaurant, Topolobampo, right next door he also has a mid-range restaurant, Frontera Grill, and a reasonable quick-service place, XOCO. This means that you don’t have to be rich and affluent or break your food budget to get the chance to try some really knock-your-socks-off cuisine from a James Beard Award winner.
To start the meal, I had the refreshing Scarlet Wave, limeade with Jamaica flower tea and Peychaud bitters. It is a beautiful magenta color that looks bright and thirst-quenching. It is fresh, tangy, and the bitters were a nice touch to offset the tangy lime. It was a great way of brightening the palate and preparing for a spicy meal.
For the salad, I got the Jicama Callejera, a salad of jicama, pineapple, and cucumber and seasoned with lime and chile. The salad was a balance of cool and warm and served in a banana leaf. It is best to stir it to get the chile evenly dispersed and get to the juice at the bottom.
For the entrée, I had Cazuela de Tinga and Dennis had the Pato en Mole Coloradito. Both dishes are served with a bottomless supply of warm, homemade tortillas for making little tacos. The Cauela de Tinga is pork shoulder that has been braised with tomatoes, chorizo, and potatoes and topped with avocado and queso fresco. The braising made the pork rich and tender. The chorizo gave spice and heartiness, but didn’t make the dish greasy. And, like the Jicama, the hearty meat and tomato sauce was delightfully balanced with fresh cheese and avocado.
The Pato en Mole Coloradito lived up to its expectations and then some. Dennis remarked that the Oaxacan mole coloradito, a harmonious blend of chocolate, nuts, and spice, is something he could eat all day. The Mole also came with a side of ground Iroquois corn that was cooked almost polenta style. It was flavorful and a great conduit for the mole.
The meal made me admire Rick Bayless all the more. Eating the food reflects a great love of a country’s cuisine and a need to share that love and fascination with others. So, next time you are in Chicago, stop by Frontera, have the mole, and share an incredible celebration of Mexican cuisine.