Jul 28, 2014
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A Savory Oasis in Food Court Desert

Frontera Fresco's chef brings world-class delights to Old Orchard Mall

One of the best things about North Shore living and being so close to a major urban center is the eating.  There's no denying that, for many of us, it's a major factor in our choice to live here as opposed to anywhere else.  Sure, there are plenty of beautiful towns out west and downstate, but what happens when you've got a taste for real Chinese food?  Or a good bagel?  Out there, your best bet for something like that would probably be a mall food court, and that simply wouldn't do.

Or would it?  The flip side of living here and having access to all that great food is that everyone else does too.  The wait for Alinea is a month, and several weeks for most other five-star restaurants. If only those establishments operated small satellite locations in malls that offered easily affordable versions of their fares.  

That's where Frontera Fresco comes in.  World-class chef and culinary star Rick Bayless, best known for his restaurant Topolobampo and occasional public television specials, offers up an accessible version of his menu, across from the Old Orchard food court.  Yes, it's mall food, but it's the best mall food you're ever going to have in your life.

Bayless' love of South American flavors comes through just as strongly at his mall location as it does in his formal restaurant.  His artful touch, applied to a classic dish, makes the familiar new again.  And that's his true strength, and the reason his food is amazing: his ability to hand us something we think we're bored with, and say, "I know you've liked this, but have you ever tried it like this?"  And suddenly something simple is transformed into something much more.

Bayless does this everywhere.  What could have easily been merely a high-end tasty taco, using fine, fresh  ingredients is inventive in the chicken chorizo taco.  Replacing the fatty, greasy (although admittedly tasty) meat with chicken is a masterstroke, delivering the flavor of chorizo with none of the sometimes too excessive oil.  At one for $4 or two for $7, the tacos are a great value as well.

The guacamole is fresh, and the taste of lime is more than a hint, though not overpowering.  The serving, however, is disappointingly small.  It's evident that not much more than a single large avocado goes into the dish, but the price is $4.  Thankfully, the rest of the menu is priced right and portion sizes are fair.

The cubana sandwich is a large, beautifully written love letter to pork, served on crispy flatbread. This torta, with roasted pork, Chihuahua cheese, applewood smoked bacon, cilantro crema, chipotle mustard and avocado, is a smoky steal at $8.

A sweet corn and green chile tamale perfectly lives up to it's name, the sugary corn finding a perfect companion alongside the zip of the green chiles for $4.

The taqueria salad is available for a lighter bite that still manages to retain strong flavors.  Served with a portion of carne asada, the flavors of arugula, lime, peppers and a lime Caesar dressing all come together, complimented with a dusting of cojito cheese for $8.

The menu item that keeps me daydreaming about going back for more, though, is the mushroom trio quesadilla.  With a garlic infused shiitake, button and cremini mushroom combination served with roasted poblano peppers swimming in a sea of queso, this amazingly flavorful guilty pleasure is simultaneously filling and frustratingly small in that "must have more NOW" way, at $8.

Dessert is skippable, and one might find better options elsewhere in the food court, but there's still a few nods to the sweet tooth on offer.  A number of agua frescas in the form of various limeades are served, each coming in around $2.  Choose from mango lime, green tea and lime, or the ultimate in lip puckering goodness, raspberry prickly pear.

It's easy to decry mall culture as empty and valueless.  The seemingly endless parade of children walking back and forth among the stores while eating reheated pretzels doesn't exactly scream good taste.  That's the genius of Frontera Fresco at Old Orchard, though.  It's an island of food sanity in an otherwise dry and empty desert, right where we need it, and just where the uninitiated can hopefully discover it.

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