Windy City Cuisine Blows Hot and Cold

By Herb Gardener –

Walking on the sidewalk and feeling hotter than a matchstick, Flora and I went searching for loving spoonful of representative Chicago fare. While Frontera Grill met expectations, we were burned by a legendary local dish.

Deep-dish, stuffed, Chicago-style — the pizza goes by many names, but the descriptor that captured the eating experience for me is also one of the City’s two airports, Midway.

As a pizza, this leaden curiosity belongs in a carnival tent between the bearded lady and ring toss. Anyone finishing a whole pie deserves a stuffed animal as a prize. One popular Chicago-style pizza chain we sampled our first night in town could have applied its pasty, sweet tomato sauce with a trowel. And yet, throngs couldn’t wait to wait 45 minutes (the time it takes to prepare each order) for the privilege of eating an American regional mediocrity. We recommend the hot dogs instead.

A more rewarding queue was the one we joined at Frontera Grill on a Saturday evening. After 20 minutes or so on the sidewalk, we entered at 5 p.m. and found a perch in the bar. A strip of agua azul tiles created a waterfall effect behind the bartenders as humorously garish winged lizards and Day of the Dead iconography hovered over diners and drinkers (Chef Rick Bayless – photo to the right – is also a cultural anthropologist). A tamarind margarita, made with mescal and a touch of chipotle pepper, deliciously enhanced my mood.

Flora and I ordered guacamole and chips, plus a ceviche trio as appetizers. The coctel de atun tropical’s yellowfin tuna glistened like tiny cubed rubies with flavor to match the presentation. I was pleased by the presence of grapefruit, a neglected seafood complement.

We each ordered entrees featuring a sauce that is the culinary equivalent of rocket science – mole. The Oaxacan coloradito and ancho-almond variations were complex and surprising. Forks flew across the table to compare and contrast flavors. For dessert, I chose “Tropical honey Manila mango sorbet nestled into poached local rhubarb afloat in sparkling sweet orange ‘broth.’” The citrus flavors were bright and alive; the sweetness deftly balanced.

The lesson for us was that a memorable dining experience at a famous restaurant does not always require reservations. Frontera’s egalitarian vibe, relaxed and attentive service, and rarified yet accessible cuisine was well worth a modest time investment. If you prefer jeans to blazers and high heels and enjoy a scene that attracts locals and visitors in equal measure, then we believe Frontera Grill will delight you.

On Saturday morning, Flora and I strolled north along the Lake Michigan shoreline to Lincoln Park and its farmer’s market. In keeping with the midwestern ethos, market in this case meant bountiful produce alongside organic meats, artisanal cheeses, and all things pickled and preserved. I found a jar that married a favorite flavor, rhubarb, with a favorite treatment, chutney. Already irresistible, the clincher came with the label – Flora
Confectioners & Pastries!

Chicago chefs and consumers project a respectful, egalitarian approach to ingredients and cooking. Local, seasonal, and sustainable are mentioned frequently, and no one apologizes for the city’s porkcentricities. Speaking of animal protein, come back for my book review on “The Art of Beef Cutting” in next month’s issue.

This summer, I am finding myself awash in sweet, succulent mangoes. Looking for a new spin? Chef Bayless bakes the flesh before igniting a pyrotechnic display. Keep a healthy distance from the drapes.

Tequila-Flamed Mangoes (Mangos Flameados)

4 medium (about three pounds total) ripe mangoes
2 oz. (quarter cup) of butter
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/4 to 1/3 cup tequila (simple blanco tequila is fine here)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
About 1 cup homemade crema, creme fraiche, or sour cream for serving
OR 1 1/2 cups ice cream (really good vanilla is the preference)

Peel the mangoes with a sharp paring knife, then cut the flesh from the pits…stand the mango on one end and slice the flesh from one side of the pit. Turn the mango around and slide from the other side. You will be able to get a couple of thin slices of flesh on each end. Cut the large pieces into long 1/2-inch wide “fingers” or wedges.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the butter in a 13×9 inch baking dish and set in the oven. When melted, about 5 minutes, remove from the oven and add mango slices. Sprinkle with brown sugar and stir gently to coat the mangoes completely, then spread out everything evenly in the dish. Bake, shaking the dish occasionally, for about 45 minutes–the mango juices will quickly seep out, then slowly simmer away, leaving you with toothsome mango slices that have a wonderfully concentrated flavor.

Just before serving, pour the tequila into a small saucepan and set over low heat–don’t let the tequila get too hot, or it won’t flame. Sprinkle the mangoes evenly with granulated sugar, then lower the lights and get everyone’s attention. Pour the tequila over the hot mangoes and immediately light it. Holding the baking dis with a towel or pot holder, shake it back and forth (it will give you more dramatic flames). When the flames subside, spoon a portion of mangoes onto each of six dessert plates. Serve
with a dollop of crema or ice cream.

(Mexico: One Plate at a Time by Rick Bayless, with Jeanmarie Brownson and
Deann Groen Bayless. Scribner publisher. $35.)

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