Since winning Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, Rick Bayless has become a household name, synonymous with fresh, organic Mexican food that uses ingredients from local farms. Dining at any Rick Bayless spot is popular on Chicago bucket lists, and you have a number to choose from. Topolobampo is the top-tier restaurant, and it’s quite a change from the “expected” Mexican restaurant atmosphere, with its linen tablecloths and museum-grade art on the walls. The menu changes monthly, but expect to find bold, soulful flavors—different chilies, fruits, and nuts—complementing game, seafood, and meat dishes. If you plan to visit Topolobampo, it’s best to make a reservation in advance.
The casual and energetic Frontera Grill is the most fun of the bunch, and serves up top-notch versions of Mexican classics—quesadillas, grilled meats, rich moles, and tender braised items, along with Mexican street snacks. You may need to wait during prime dining hours at Frontera, but it’s a good excuse to put your name on the list and hit the bar for a margarita. To taste Bayless for less, stop by the fast-casual Xoco (pronounced SHO-ko), which offers straightforward counter service (soups, salads, sandwiches, and churros) and churns people in and out at lightning speed (after sitting at the cramped shared tables, you’ll understand why). Bayless really excels at caldos (soups), so take advantage of those whenever and wherever you can.
Bayless’s reach has spread beyond his River North haunts, and you can find his fast-food spots, called Frontera Fresco, around the city and even at O’Hare. If you’re in The Loop, visit the Frontera Fresco on the seventh floor of Macy’s (111 N. State St.; tel. 312/781-4884), for tortas, salads, soup, and other Mexican items, all for less than $9.