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The Mexican Spectrum in Chicago

by Krista


The 2000 U.S. census found 530,000 Mexicans in the city of Chicago. If you consider that the population of Chicago itself is 3 million (not including the greater Chicagoland area), well, that’s 17.6% of the city’s population.

You can sorta figure this out by observing the number of burrito joints around town. There are a lot. A lot a lot. Topolobampo, run by Rick Bayless, is one of–if not THE–best. (Although referring to it as a burrito joint is a HUGE understatement.)

I lived in Chicago for eight years, but didn’t make it to Bayless’ Frontera Grill until the year I left. (2004.)

It took me three more years to finally make it to Topolobampo, his fine dining Mexican restaurant.

I suppose Bayless’ name doesn’t mean much in the U.K. But in Chicago and among those-in-the-know in the U.S., he’s a revered god of Mexican cooking–and he’s not even Mexican. He’s written umpteen Mexican cookbooks. He closes the restaurant for a week each year and takes the staff to Mexico so they can stay up-to-date. And he shops local and supports local producers.

To be honest, my expectations for Topolobampo were low given my disappointing experiences early in the week. Had dining out in London soured me for Chicago experiences? Was I becoming a haughty international scenester? Hmmm.

Eileen met me out and over margaritas (two was two too many), we shared an appetizer of dried beef tacos in mole sauce. I was a little curious about the dried beef part–part of me expected beef jerkey or something–but it worked. Amazingly well.

Our servers were some of the most informed I’ve experienced as of late. They were memorable. They explained each dish in just the right amount of detail without sounding overly scripted. They knew when to approach the table and when to stay away. And they didn’t seem to mind so much when Eileen and I were the absolute last guests to leave that night. I hope to return to Topolo many many times.

Img_2564Towards the end of my trip to Chicago, my co-worker Jeff and I grabbed lunch at La Cocina, the new local Mexican spot that’s sprung up since my last visit to Chicago in November of 2006.

My meal at La Cocina was roughly 10% of the price of my meal at Topolobampo. And although it missed pretty much all of the finesse of Topolo, the service was cheerful, the mixed tacos (one each of pork, steak, and chicken) were much more than decent, and the refried beans were fantastic. (Some people don’t like refritos. I am not one of those people.) Oh yes, and the corn chips were served with salsa verde, only one of my favorite things in the entire world.

While I’ve still got your attention, I just wanted to give a shout out to my fellow restaurant bloggers in Chicago…Chicago Bites and Chicago Foodies and Chicago Gluttons and well, I am sure there are others but these are some of the best that I found. If you are paid in GBP, EUR, SEK, NOK, or DKK, you should totally take advantage of that exchange rate and plan your trip to Chicago TODAY.

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Tammy January 12, 2008 - 3:30 pm

Hey, just found your blog! Thanks for the shout out. If I ever head towards London, I’m coming here for suggestions!

-Tammy,Chicago Bites Podcast

Feathers January 13, 2008 - 1:39 pm

JEALOUS!!! I just told Mr. Feathers yesterday I never made it to Topo and it breaks my heart. You didn’t tell me you went. Can’t wait to go next time.

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