Topolobampo, Rick Bayless’ famous Chicago Mexican Restaurant

The Oxman girls hit Chicago!

0r, how much can two sisters eat in two days in Chicago?  A lot!

I wanted to eat dinner at Topolobampo more than anything.  This highly rated Mexican restaurant in downtown Chicago is owned by Rick Bayless. Rick is big into authentic Mexican cuisine and he channels his love for all things Mexico into wonderfully informative cookbooks and celebrated PBS cooking shows. He’s good.

Luckily we snagged reservations for 9:15 Wednesday night as reservations typically are out eight to ten weeks in advance. When we arrived the place was hoppin with patrons lined up outside while others dined al fresco in the warm October night. Surprisingly the building houses both his famous restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo side by side. We entered through the Frontera front door where an elaborate 3-tiered Day of the Dead alter greeted us. Colorful Mexican folk art, laughing dancing skeletons, and ghoulish skulls welcomed the dearly departed and those of us just out celebrating. A bit early for our reservation we wound our way through the crowd to the bar shared by both restaurants and squeezed in next to some friendly folks. The bar coils down one side of the long narrow room with small dining tables hugging the other side of the aisle. The brightly painted walls are adorned with an eclectic mix of original Mexican fine art collected by the Bayless’ during their travels in Mexico.  Large whimsical pieces of folk art dangle from the high ceilings. The vibe is a convivial mix of happy voices, bustling staff and kitchen clatter in a warm and friendly atmosphere. Most everyone is eating and the food looks delicious. The guy next to us is thoroughly enjoying his bowl of cochinita pibil, a savory Yucatan pork dish, while Seattle guy on the other side has a steaming plate of tacos and a trio of salsa’s in front of him. Chatting with our seat mates they encourage us to stay and eat claiming Frontera’s casual menu the better of the two and much less expensive. But we are on a mission so when our hostess finds us at the bar we are ready to move into the next room.

Topolobampo’s dining room is sleek and classy, with more of a fine dining ambience than Frontera.   Ricks interpretation of the new wave of contemporary Mexican cuisine known as Mexicana Cocina Nueva is evident in his creative fusion of regional Mexican dishes with locally sourced ingredients and innovative presentation.  You won’t find guacamole and chips on the menu much to my sisters’ consternation but you will find an eclectic assortment of intriguing dishes  We hungrily peruse the ten seafood choices from the Mexican Raw Bar menu and quickly settle on “Coctel Clasico de Mariscos” and “Ceviche Express”. The menu states that all seafood is sustainably raised or caught and tested for purity.

Our order arrives promptly; the portions are small and exquisitely executed. Every nuance is considered on the plate, Banana leaves encase succulent pieces of crab, mussels and octopus in my seafood cocktail and Suzy’s Ceviche made with sashimi grade Pacific yellowtail is equally impressive with bacon scented olive oil drizzled over the chile salsa infused with mescal.

We order from the Salads and Appetizers section of the menu for our second course. Suzy’s bowl of Sopa Azteca achieves the perfect balance of flavor and texture with the earthy heat of roasted pasilla chile puree combined with chicken, avocado, Jack cheese, crema and crispy tortilla chips. My “Ensalada Clasica is fresh with the taste of fresh lime and walnut oil.

The pace is leisurely and the wine excellent.  We are slowly gearing up for the entrée course. I pick the “Siete Mares estilo Topolo”, a brothy dish of smokey whitefish, roasted tomato, homemade chipotle chiles and epazote.  The fish is served in a shallow white enamel bowl and though the Mackinaw trout has a lovely texture, light and tender, the dish itself looks bland. The few slices of fingerling potatoes add no overall color and the portion is so skimpy I have to ask the waiter for more to finish up with my fish.

Suzy goes for seafood also and orders the crispy Arctic Char and roasted Main lobster medallions. Prepared with a mouthwatering “mojo of black and white garlic, savory white camote flan, sesame glazed cipollini onions, and smokey green beans” she’s in heaven, proclaiming her dish amazing. I have to take her word for it since I never had a chance!

At this point in the evening we are satiated but somehow our sweet and attentive waiter talks us into sharing a piece of Tres Leche cake created by their in-house pastry chef, Jennifer Jones. We are not disappointed. The Tres Leche cake is decadent, it’s infused with toasted hazelnuts and cradled by homemade Oaxacan chocolate ice-cream, vanilla poached quince, housemade ricotta, hazelenut crumble and meringue.  It is sooo good and we are so happy.

Topolobampo an upscale gourmet Mexican restaurant has garnered numerous awards and accolades including 4 stars out of 4 from Chicago Magazine.  It is a mecca for serious gourmands and will change the opinion of diners who think they don’t like Mexican into Mexican food aficionados!

Topolobampo pricing;   $15.00 – $30.00 Mexican Raw Bar

$9.00 – $12.00 Salads and Appetizers

$25.00 – $40.00 Entrees

Topolobampo also offers three different tasting menus each with five courses.

Tasting pricing;    $100.00; with 5 perfectly matched wines, add $60.00

Topolobampo/ 445 North Clark/ Chicago, Illinois / 312-661-1434


“Siete Mares” estilo Topolo ~ wood-grilled Macinac lake trout & PEI mussels, smoky whitefish broth (roasted tomato, homemade chipotle chiles, epazote), Nichols Farm fingerling potatoes, smoky green beans. $35

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