Mexican cuisine is extremely regionalized; each state has its own specialties and variations on national dishes. A lot of this regionalization is due to Mexico’s diverse climate. Tacos al Pastor, the late night street food where pork is sliced from a spit and layered in a corn tortilla with pineapple, originates far from the ocean in Mexico City where swine is abundant.. Ceviche, campechanas, and seafood cocteles can be found in coastal states like Baja California and Sinaloa, where fresh fish is plentiful. Tinga, a dish where shredded pork is placed in a clay pot and stewed with chipotle, tomatoes, onion, and garlic, can be traced back to the farms of landlocked Puebla. Given this incredible specialization of regions and their dishes, creating a single pan-Mexican restaurant that tackles all of the regions while maintaining quality, is no easy task.
And this is what Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill attempts to do. From my recent meal I got the sense that while the restaurant was good, it was at one point even better. The menu could not have been more enticing: no Tex-Mex fajitas, chili con carne, or taco bowl salads. Instead, dishes from the Yucatán to Ensenada were spread across three pages. The menu was a patchwork of the finest local cuisines found throughout Mexico. Chef Bayless’s extensive travel throughout Mexico and research of its cuisine was immediately apparent.
Unfortunately, a lot of the preparations were imprecise and flavorings lax. Excessive sweetness and dried out meat made some of the dishes that could have been exceptional taste much less so. Frontera Grill is a restaurant with tremendous potential that needs a dose of culinary upkeep.
The atmosphere was relaxed and lively. Buena Vista Social Club and Celia Cruz played in the background. Despite having a set reservation time, this is a restaurant where the tight-packed nightly churn required a short wait. While waiting we had a short look through the shelves of Rick Bayless cookbooks and mail-order salsas; the tomatillo looked just right with its thin viscosity and forest green color dotted by golden husk tomato seeds.
Guacamole and totopos – Thin, crispy corn tortilla chips with chunky guacamole. The guacamole was generous on the lime and sprinkled with white onion, a few leaves of cilantro, and radish wedges. The tortillas tasted very flat, without the intense flavor of corn which normally makes them so addictive. A pinch of salt helped to bring out the sweet corn flavor, but these were nothing to write home about.
Coctel de atún tropical - A martini glass of Hawaiian big eye tuna with chunky mango and an avocado-tomatillo guacamole. Though very sweet from the ripe mango, this was a delicious course. The acidity of the tomatillo really enhanced the bite of the lime without making the dish cheek-puckering sour. The greens sprinkled on top helped to add a bit of vegetal bitterness to slightly reduce the sweetness. This was my favorite course of the night.
Callos de hacha en aguachile - Slices of raw, sweet scallop in a chile water spiced with serrano pepper wedges. This was another great course that walked the tightrope between too much acidity and not enough. The lime added a bright note while the subtle flavor of the scallops could still be tasted.
Tostaditas de tinga – Small corn tortillas topped with a lump of pork stewed in chipotle. The flavoring of this dish from Puebla was just right, a delicate balance of tanginess and spice. Unfortunately, the meat was a bit dry which shouldn’t be the case for a pork stew. This dish is typically abundant with moisture, with excess stew running off the tortillas.
Flautas de camarón – Small flutes of deep-fried tortilla filled with shrimp, garnished with peeled orange, pickled onions, watercress leaves, güero chiles, and potato cubes. This was a dish that would have been best served simple. The flautas were excellent by themselves, but the sweetness of the orange combined with the already sweet tomato sauce made the dish cloying. The tomato sauce tasted a bit too much like a marinara sauce and not enough like a cooked salsa.
Birria de chivo - Red chile-braised Pleasant Meadow farms goat a top a plump fried sope. Unfortunately, the meat was pretty dry, and that was the focus of the dish. The stew beneath the sope has a musky, barnyard flavor that was really delicious. The iceberg lettuce added a fresh crunch that kept each bite texturally interesting.
Tacos al pastor – Frankly, this is a dish that shouldn’t be on the menu. Tacos al pastor really need a rotating pork spit to develop the right texture, slices of pineapple and a sprinkle of raw onion and cilantro. There was none of that here. This dish was stewed pork and onion in what tasted like a chipotle tomato sauce. This seemed more like fajita filling than the outrageously delicious Mexican street food. This was my least favorite course of the night.
Eating at Frontera really brought back some of my best memories of traveling in Mexico. Before I visited Frontera I had heard from a few Mexican friends who had been there several years back that the cuisine was better than much of the food in Mexico. While I don’t agree, I do think that there is potential for this restaurant to be much better than it currently is. There is too much of a discrepancy between how the menu reads and how the food is prepared. This may be because chef Bayless, with an in-depth understanding of Mexican cuisine, is essentially no longer in the kitchen. Hopefully the meticulousness of the preparation improves. The US could sure use a great Mexican restaurant.