Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
No one in the last thirty years has done more to pry loose our death grips on the queso dip bowl and fajita platter and gently introduce us to the glories of regional Mexican flavors than chef Rick Bayless. Author of eight cookbooks, teacher, television host, fundraiser, Top Chef Masters champion: He's a one-man Mexican Empire.
In 1987, the same year Bayless published his first tome, Authentic Mexican, he and his wife Deann (who also co-penned the book) opened midscale Frontera Grill. It bridged the gap for Middle America, eschewing the combo plate but luring customers with smoky wafts from the grill fueled by hardwood coal, build-your-own tacos, and enigmatic moles. Precision-engineered margaritas smoothed the conversion. Two years later the Baylesses launched fine-dining Topolobampo in a room off one side of Frontera. It was the sophisticated approach to Mexican cuisine that Bayless had wanted to take in the first place, though he was smart enough to know he needed to first win over palates with Frontera's accessibility. He wooed at Topolo via saucing: wild turkey breast with heady chocolate mole, mahi mahi with poblano cream, empanadas napped in avocado puree.
Topolo is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this fall. This year, Bayless has opened other restaurants, including a second location of casual torta shop Xoco in Chicago's Wicker Park last month (the original Xoco is next to Topolobampo) and two locations—with a third on the way of his Mexi-Cali concept Red O in Los Angeles. Checking in on the siblings that became icons, I Bayless-binged by lunching at Frontera Grill and then having dinner at Topolo.