Photo courtesy of Frontera Grill
By Ed Avis
When you investigate the Latin restaurant scene in Chicago, you quickly discern two things: First, Rick Bayless’ influence is broad and deep; and second, authenticity is defined differently depending on whether you’re on the north or south side of the city.
But chefs throughout the area -- whether they are Bayless proteges or immigrants preparing food they remember from home -- are creating a vibrant, innovative Latin scene that is helping make Chicago one of the top restaurant cities in the country.
The Bayless Effect
No article about Chicago’s Latin restaurant scene can ignore Rick Bayless. His restaurants, which include Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco, not only introduced Chicago to the deep possibilities of Mexican food, but they also spawned the careers of at least 19 chefs who have gone on to create other important Latin restaurants in Chicago and other parts of the country (click here to read “The Bayless Effect”).
Bayless already had deep Mexican culinary experience – including six years living in Mexico researching the cuisine – when he and his wife, Deann Groen Bayless, opened Frontera Grill in 1987 in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.
“I was doing pastries at a restaurant that was changing to a rib shack or something, so I answered an ad in the paper for a position at Frontera,” remembers Kevin Karales, who started as a cook at Frontera when the restaurant opened and was managing chef when he left in 1999. “After talking to Rick amidst the rubble of construction, what he was doing sounded incredibly interesting. He talked about dishes I had never heard of. When he mentioned the cuisine from different regions of Mexico, I thought that was pretty cool.”
The regional cuisine of Mexico is a focus of Bayless’. His restaurants have aimed to show Chicago diners that Mexican food can be as diverse and culinarily advanced as the cuisine of any country.
Prior to Frontera, which is located in the same building Bayless’ more upscale restaurant Topolobampo, Chicago’s Mexican restaurant scene was primarily focused on cuisine American diners typically understood as Mexican. Frontera offered something less familiar at the time – ceviches, moles, regional specialties.
“My eyes kept reopening up and reopening up with every dish,” says Karales, who is now the corporate chef at V&V Supremo, a manufacturer of Mexican cheeses and other products in Chicago. “It was the first of its kind.”
Success came almost immediately. “The first couple of days we were open there was not much going on,” Karales says. “We had a wobbly week or so, and then bam bam bam – the customers started coming out of the woodwork.”
The opening of Frontera coincided with the publication of the cookbook Bayless had been preparing while he was in Mexico, “Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.” Publicity for that book, along with favorable press coverage of Frontera, including in the New York Times, attracted crowds.
“I remember one day not having the grill lit and people were already lined up at the door,” Karales says. “I thought, I better hurry up!”
Those lines have remained ever since, made up of diners attracted to Bayless’ unfailing high quality and dishes that reach deep into Mexico’s culinary bounty.
But Bayless’ effect on Chicago’s Latin scene extends far beyond his personal restaurant empire – which includes the above-mentioned restaurants, plus Tortas Frontera at O’Hare International Airport and projects in other cities. Perhaps his most significant legacy is the number of former Bayless proteges now at work in other restaurants. The city is dotted with places run by his exes, and they add significantly the overall restaurant scene in Chicago and elsewhere.
“I personally think that without Rick Bayless, my restaurant and the others like it wouldn’t be here,” says Priscila Satkoff, a former Bayless personal assistant and now owner of Salpicon, a fine Mexican restaurant in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. “He was the pioneer.”
Lovers of Latin cuisine could eat at a different remarkable restaurant in Chicago every night of the month and never visit the same place twice. That scene, inspired by Bayless in many cases but not all, is fueled Chicago’s overall foodie vibe and its international feel.
“The thing is our city is heavily influenced by the cultures that reside south of us,” says Chris Koetke, executive director of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, which has trained many of the chefs in Chicago’s Latin restaurants. “It’s not just that there are a lot of people here from Latin countries, but the reality is they are improving the fabric of our city and making it ever more interesting.”
Koetke, whose programs at Kendall include Mexican “master classes” taught by visiting chefs from Mexico, observes that Latin cuisine is influencing dining in Chicago up and down the spectrum. “What I see is that the influence of Mexican food at all levels of restaurants, from fine dining to food trucks, is continuing unabated. I don’t think we’ve begun to see that wane. There are so many influences from Mexico that are still unexplored.”
One of the first Bayless grads to open her own place was Satkoff. The Mexico City native worked in various positions for Bayless from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s, but craved the chance to bring her version of Mexican cuisine to Chicago. In 1995 she and her husband, Vincent Satkoff, who held front-of-house leadership positions at Chicago stalwarts Ambria and Spiaggia, opened Salpicon. The honors – including having September 29, 2011 deemed “Chef Priscila Satkoff Day” by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – have rolled in.
“We do traditional but contemporary Mexican dishes, all from scratch” Satkoff says. Current menu items at Salpicon include Chiles Dona Queta (a poblano chile stuffed with huitlacoche, corn, and zucchini) and Chuleta de Puerco en Manchamanteles (a pork chop topped with mole, grilled pineapple, sweet potato and plantains).
Another Bayless veteran who scored with his own place was Raul Arreola, who began as a dishwasher at Frontera in 1989 and eventually rose to sous chef at Topolobampo. He left Bayless’ employ in 2001, worked at several other Mexican restaurants, and opened Mixteco Grill in the Lakeview neighborhood in 2008.
Mixteco features a wood-fired oven that Arreola puts to flavorful use creating dishes
such as Borrego en Mole Negro (wood-grilled rack of lamb with Oaxacan black mole) and Camarones en Mole Queretano (wood-grilled black tiger shrimp with green mole). The tortillas, hand-made behind the bar in the main dining room, accompany each meal.
Arreola says defying Chicagoans’ stereotypes about typical Mexican food is one of Mixteco’s goals. “The food of Mexico is grand and broad, but I think it’s hard to explain,” Arreola says. “Many people have the idea that it’s just tacos – but it’s not, there’s an infinity of rich and local dishes.”
Perhaps the Bayless employee who has gone on to the most success is Paul Kahan, who already had considerable cooking experience when he joined Topolobampo in the 1990s. After working for Bayless he opened Blackbird, The Publican, Avec, and Big Star, all of which have been widely praised. The current chef de cuisine at Big Star, an innovative taco restaurant in the Wicker Park neighborhood, is another Bayless alum, Julie Warpinski.
More recently, four Bayless alumni have opened restaurants in Chicago to acclaim.
Anselmo Ramirez, who served at Frontera and Topolabampo from 1995 to 2008, opened Ixcateco Grill in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood in 2015. The native of Guerrero, Mexico has made Ixcateco a family restaurant in two senses of the word – his mother Maria makes the fresh tortillas and his daughter Lisette is a hostess; and the place is popular with Chicago families who can afford his remarkable food at under $18 a dish.
“When I was designing the menu I used to think about the family who cannot afford the expensive restaurants in the city,” Ramirez says. “My menu is simple and small.”
But the dishes on that simple and small menu – such as Ensalada de Betabel (roasted beets, jicama, pea shoots, candied pecans and goat cheese salad) and Cochinita Pibil – are so special that the restaurant was named one of Chicago magazine’s Best New Restaurants in 2016.
Among the most celebrated recent openings by a Bayless graduate – two graduates, in fact, married couple Bryan Enyart and Jennifer Jones – is Dos Urban Cantina. Dos Urban opened last November in Logan Square, a traditionally Hispanic neighborhood that is gentrifying, and was called “the most important Mexican restaurant to open in Chicago since Topolobampo” by Chicago Tribune food critic Phil Vettel.
“We wanted to create an environment that hit on a lot of different levels,” says Enyart, who worked for Bayless from 1997 to 2011. “The paramount thing is we wanted the food to be delicious. Second, we wanted it to be beautiful, and we wanted it to tell the story.”
Dos Urban’s menu is divided into four quadrants – vegetable, masa, seafood, and meat – and within each quadrant are dishes that are considered appetizers and others that are entrees. Among the most popular dishes is Street Style Corn (cotija, mayo, hominy and masa pudding), Grilled Mushrooms (maitake and shimeji mushrooms with Oaxacan red mole and chestnut cornbread), and Carnitas (served with cabbage and potatoes in a tomatillo sauce).
Bayless’ influence stretches beyond the foodie-rich North Side of Chicago. Another successful recent opening by a former protégé is 5 Rabinitos in the Pilsen neighborhood, a Hispanic stronghold on the South Side much better known for its traditional Mexican restaurants.
“Our menu is completely different, our presentations are completely different, our style is completely different,” says chef Alfonso Sotelo, who opened 5 Rabinitos in December after working for Bayless for 20 years.
The menu at 5 Rabinitos – such as the Pozola Verde from a family recipe – attracts diners of all skin tones and income levels to the modest storefront.
Naturally, there is more to Chicago’s Latin cuisine than the Bayless effect.
One of the more celebrated Chicago Latin chefs is Carlos Gaytan, whose restaurant Mexique in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood earned a Michelin star in 2014. Gaytan, who is not a former Bayless employee, challenges guests with dishes they will not encounter anywhere else.
“Sometimes we need to tell the guests what they have to eat,” Gaytan says. “Last night we served a plantain sope with habanero achiote butter escargot – it was amazing. We served it with black beans and kumquats. People were loving it.”
Gaytan regularly brings ingredients back to Chicago from his native Mexico. For example, on a recent trip to Oaxaca he tried a dish that included hoja santa, a popular herb in Mexico used in soups and moles. He brought back some seeds and plans to grow them on his rooftop garden and eventually employ them on his menu.
“In Oaxaca they crushed the whole hoja santa leaf into a tortilla, folded it with cheese, and toasted it on one side,” he says. “When I try something like that it gives me the chance to get creative. I want to try it with fish – it has a minty or licorice taste.”
Another non-Bayless protégé who has brought new Latin flavors to Chicago is Enrique Cortes, chef of Rique’s Cocina Mexicana in the Uptown neighborhood. Cortes’ menu focuses on northern Mexican flavors.
“We don’t want to cook what everyone else is cooking or that we cooked 10 years ago,” Cortes says. “That’s why we offer rabbit in chipotle with plums and gallina pinta, an extremely rare soup made with oxtail. I think it’s our responsibility to introduce new flavors and keep educating people about our food.”
Among other non-Bayless chefs who have influenced Latin dining in Chicago is Dudley Nieto, whose talents have been on display at Mezcalina, BarbaKoa Modern Latin, and other establishments; and Francisco Lopez, better known as Chef Paco, whose New Rebozo restaurants in Oak Park and Chicago have been designated by the Mexican government as one of the Best Authentic Mexican Restaurants.
Even Richard Sandoval, whose roots are not in Chicago, recently added to Chicago’s Latin palate by opening Latinicity, a casual, pan-Latin eatery in the heart of Chicago’s Loop.
“Richard Sandoval is making an homage to all of these Latin countries – Mexico, Ecuador, Peru – in one place with Latinicity,” says Martin Cabrera, regional business development manager for US Foods and a 15-year veteran of Chicago’s restaurant scene. “I think Latinicity is one example of how the food scene here is more sophisticated and catering to the millennials.”
Two Types of Authentic
The restaurants described above serve Latin cuisine that challenges the conventional notions of that cuisine, yet the chefs making that food largely claim they are adhering to authentic Latin flavors and ingredients. But many other Chicago restaurants – such as those centered around the Hispanic neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village -- also claim to be authentic.
“There is a very different perception of Latin food between working-class Mexicans and people who eat at Rick Bayless’ restaurants,” says Alan Corona, executive chef and culinary center manager for CSSI, a culinary marketing and consulting firm in Chicago. “Is there family seating? Affordable prices? Are families welcome? That’s authentic to a working-class Mexican family.”
Regardless of whether they are “authentic” or not, the Mexican restaurants in Pilsen and Little Village, and in many other neighborhoods in Chicago, offer flavors that remind immigrants of home and provide others with genuine Mexican dining experiences.
The menu of Del Toro Tequila Bar & Restaurant in the Pilsen neighborhood, for example, includes the staples of traditional Mexican restaurants in the U.S.: tacos, burritos, sopes, carne asada, queso fundido, etc. Many of the ingredients, however, are superior to those found in typical Mexican restaurants in other areas.
“The chorizo we use is made here, and it’s a recipe of our grandmother from San Luis de Potosi in Mexico,” says Everardo Garcia, who owns the restaurant together with his brother Andres.
Garcia says among the most popular dishes at Del Toro is Carne Apache (raw ground beef marinated in lime juice and mixed with peppers, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, vinegar and spices). “It’s made in the same way you make ceviche, but with beef instead of fish or shrimp.”
Restaurante Dona Torta in Little Village is well known for its tortas, including the Torta Bomba, an enormous sandwich made with breaded, marinated pork; ham; grilled pineapple; Chihuahua cheese; bacon; and refried beans.
Quality is the key to Dona Torta’s success, says owner Arturo Guasso, who opened the restaurant with his sister Maria Elana de la Vega and his brother-in-law Rafael de la Vega in 1990.
“In addition to the good service we provide to customers, we use only the best quality ingredients,” Guasso says. “For example, for the chicken dishes, we use only the tenderloin of the breast….and for the beef we use only the sirloin bottom flat cut.”
Traditional Mexican seafood restaurants are also popular in Chicago. For example, Mariscos La Grulla in Little Village offers seafood typically found in Mexican coastal areas. The
restaurant is the third opened since 2002 by Chef Jesus Ramirez. Among the most popular dishes is Pina con Mariscos Luis, a half pineapple stuffed with shrimp, octopus, fish and other seafood (click here for the recipe). The dish was developed by Ramirez’ uncle, Luis Martinez, in his restaurant in Guadalajara, but versions can be found in other Chicago-area Mexican restaurants today.
“We also sell a lot of carry-out, especially our shrimp consommé, Levanta Muertos (rising up the dead),” Ramirez says. The Levanta Muertos is a reputed hangover cure.
For diners seeking even more tradition, Birriera Zaragoza in the Archer Heights neighborhood serves only roasted goat dishes. The limited menu hasn’t prevented the accolades from pouring in: among many other honors it won the Jean Banchet Award for Best Ethnic Restaurant in 2016.
The Latin restaurant environment in Chicago is vibrant and inviting, more today than at any other point in history.
“It’s really an exciting time for Latin food and Chicago chefs,” Enyart says. “Our food scene has gotten better and better, and what I love about Chicago is that Chicago chefs and the community are very supportive of each other. It’s a very encouraging environment in which to cook to to be a part of.”
Ed Avis is the publisher of el Restaurante. Jorge Rennella provided additional reporting for this article.