Perhaps, my most consistent recommendation on Chowhound has been for that place, Not Frontera. I never meant to denigrate Frontera or Rich Bayless per se. I surely give Bayless credit for turning me on to all the wonders of Maxwell Street, and I respect what he has done to encourage Mexican eating. I would not know and appreciate Not Frontera if it was not for Frontera. I also appreciate Bayless's support of various forms of sustainable agriculture even as I have always taken issues with a few things at Frontera. The prices, the countless extra charges, the wait, always bugged me, but I did not really attack the food.
Not Frontera meant go somewhere else. Go somewhere new, somewhere not mentioned in every story about Chicago food. Go to someone without cookbooks, without reviews in the newspapers, without a listing in Chicago Magazine's Top 20. Not Frontera gave me so much enjoyment with its tastes of all parts of Mexico. At Not Frontera, I was constantly impressed with the effort put into the smallest of details. Like at a small burrito stand on the farthest Western fringes of Chicago, they make a delicious salsa from burlap sacks full of dried peppers. I am confident in my love of Not Frontera.
Over my existence on Chowhound, (I believe) I have written about more Mexican than any other kind of food. I backed up Not Frontera by introducing people to exotically stuffed quesadilla's at Dona Lois and the glories of a simple place amidst some industrial buildings in Cicero. I helped bring the many regions of Mexico here in Chicago to the eater, including restaurants specializing in the food of Nayarit, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Michoacan. I showed that behind the doors of a rusty purple van existed the best sopes ever, and talked about lesser known dishes like carne en su jugo and pozole. In turn, others added and expanded, the whole meaning of Not Frontera, with essays on the origins of cemita's, guidebooks to 26th street, and thoughts on all thing Geno Bahena (plus way more things on Mexican food than can be mentioned in this one post). Chicago Chowhound contains a hell of a lot of support for Not Frontera. So, in the end, Frontera.
I ate at Frontera for the first time in a few years this Saturday. I recognize that while Not Frontera may be generally more pleasurable to me, I have never ruled out Frontera as good place to eat. Plus, I was meeting someone from out of town who had a limited timeframe in Chicago. We had no opportunity to truck it out to Not Frontera. Really, in the intervening years, I wanted to see how Frontera stacked up against Not Frontera. And will you be surprised if I said, not that well.
I remember the original lay out at Frontera, when the bar dominated one room. Over time, they have expanded their seating, enhancing the decor and its theme of Mexican primitive art, especially the day of the dead tchotkes. It is a styled decorator look that you will not see in the barrio. Still, in this time, Frontera crammed as many tables into this space as possible. Over our lunch, we constantly had to shuffle plates and such to maintain space on the table, and because we had no room for the tortilla's, they kept on trying to snag them from us because I put them on the ledge. Pretty, but not very comfortable. The service too was rather schitzo. We arrived within minutes of opening, and when the place was still quiet, we got a fair amount of attention and warmth. By the time the place was filled and bustling, the service broke down. We never saw our server toward the end of the meal.
On the plate, and quickly, I know this is getting long. One dish really impressed me, it was exactly the dish I want from Frontera. A tinga de honga, a stew of wild and exotic mushrooms, spiced mysteriously and with a good amount of heat. Highly delicious wrapped in the fresh made tortillas (which I must add are not as good as some found at Not Frontera). Not Frontera, however, would never, never have mushrooms this special, and this was a dish planned, conceived and executed with chef skills. The tortilla soup also benefited from an organized kitchen, having a well-performed stock behind it, yet the flavors on top were still a bit muted for me. On the other hand, Not Frontera serves more tasty tamals, Frontera's tamal was flat--both in shape and in flavor. Two moles paled to some found at Not Frontera. They just lacked soul. Me, I like a little trail of oil behind my mole. It should be thick, greasy, maybe gritty, and unctuous, not smooth and refined. Same thing for the table salsa's, which I believe are just from the well-displayed jars, tasty, refined but not nearly as satisfying as what you would find at Not Frontera. I have said before that I feel much more safe ordering ceviche at Frontera vs. Not Frontera, but right now I really preferred Not Frontera ceviche, say Islas Marias ceviche. Frontera's ceviche was way over marinated and again, not as forward with the flavors. Finally, I tried dessert, something I rarely do at Not Frontera. Believe me, no dessert may have beaten out the dry and plain pay de coco (coconut pie) served at Frontera.
I understand always the need for some people to try Frontera. After all, it made the most sense for me on Saturday. Still, after giving Frontera a good whirl, I am more confident than ever with Not Frontera.