March 20, 2012

445 North Clark Street Chicago, IL |

As I imagine is the case with many people, I was first introduced to the name Rick Bayless on the first season of Top Chef Masters. With his great humility despite his incredible talent, he became a quick favorite contestant of mine. And, ever since seeing him prepare his version of Oaxacan mole in the finale episode (which he went on to win), I knew that his restaurant would be on my list of places to visit when I had a chance to travel to Chicago.

Finally, almost 2.5 years later, I had the chance to visit Chicago with some friends on business. We flew in a day early and planned on spending time in the city, catching up with each other and partaking in Chicago’s Michelin dining scene. For lunch we headed down to Clark Street to dine at Topolobampo, where I would finally get a taste of Chef Rick Bayless’ cuisine.

Three of Rick Bayless’ restaurants can be found in the same location: Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, and Xoco. The holder of a 1-Michelin star rating, Topolobampo falls closer to the “fine dining” end of the scale, although the restaurant’s atmosphere is pleasantly casual. After valeting our car and walking in, we were promptly led to a table, passing through Frontera Grill to reach Topolobampo. After acquainting ourselves with the menu, we decided on our order. I then waited in great anticipation to finally taste the Oaxacan mole I had seen Chef Bayless prepare years ago.

Guacamole – House made tortilla chips

A little pre-lunch snack compliments of the house, this simple bowl of guacamole gave us the first glimpse into Rick Bayless’ mastery of Mexican cuisine. The guacamole was deliciously simple, fresh, and bright.

Trio, Trio, Trio – Ceviche Fronterizo, Ceviche Yucateco, Coctel de Atun Tropical

As an appetizer to our main entrees we opted to try a sampling of various ceviche. Each cup was filled with fresh ingredients, especially with regard to the seafood. Each variation had the light, zesty, and refreshing qualities commonly found in ceviche, but with slight differences in each. My personal favorite was the Ceviche Yucateco (middle glass), which packed a few punches of hot spice with bright orange citrus flavors. The Coctel de Atun Tropical (right glass) was an interesting combination of flavors, especially with the addition of mango and grapefruit along with the yellowfin tuna.

Cochinita Pibil – Wood oven suckling pig pibil, wood roasted pork loin, creamy kohlrabi, black bean “pearls”, green chili rajas, habanero pickled red onion

A tender presentation of suckling pig, the cochinita pibil was another dish I had seen Chef Bayless prepare on Top Chef Masters (although he fried it crispy on the show). The sauce around the pork was complex, although not to the same extent as the mole, but still delicious.

Borrego en Mole Negro – Wood grilled lamb leg, Oaxacan black mole, corn husk-steamed chipil tamal, unctuous black bean, smoky green beans

With the ceviches devoured and the table cleared, our server places on in front of us our entree orders. Around slices of perfectly cooked lamb he pours a generous amount of Oaxacan black hole, made from 29 total ingredients. Cutting a portion of lamb and running it through the mole, I get my first taste. Much to my satisfaction, the mole is as complex and delicious as I had hoped it would be. A multitude of different flavors hit my palate. As I continue to eat I begin to get a sense of the dozens of ingredients that went into the mole. The flavors are so well combined and yet somehow manage to stand out from one another. I thoroughly enjoyed this dish.

Carne Asada “Brava” – Spicy habanero marinated ribeye, spicy salsa huevano, grilled knob onions, sweet corn tamal

The “spicy” description of this carne asada was very appropriate! The marinated ribeye packed a serious punch of heat along with the spicy salsa. The tender and flavorful beef accompanied the salsa well. The slight sweetness of the corn tamal helped to cut through some of the spice. This was also served with flour tortillas on the side.

Coco Limon y Ron – Coconut sorbet, tapioca pearls, chocolate shell, kaffir lime

To end our journey at Topolobampo we opted for a lighter, refreshing dessert to cleanse our palates. The coconut sorbet and lime certainly did the job, offering a sweet burst of cool and refreshing flavor. The tapioca pearls and chocolate shell balanced the dessert with a little richness.


I am certainly guilty of growing up not viewing Mexican cuisine on the same level as perhaps French or Japanese. During our lunch at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless demonstrated to me that, under the right chef, Mexican cuisine can every bit as delicious, elegant, and complex. From the simple deliciousness of his guacamole to the deep complexity of the Oaxacan mole, it is apparent that Chef Bayless is deserving of his many accolades. He is truly at the forefront of modern Mexican cuisine here in the U.S., and I look forward to dining at his restaurants again in the future.

445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60654

* 1 Michelin Star

Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

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