In a more cynical world, Rick Bayless would be sipping a margarita in a hammock at some oceanfront villa, diving into crystal clear waters, getting fat and tan. He’d be living off a mindless multimillion-dollar Mexican restaurant empire that put his food in every strip mall in America. But in this world—praise Quetzalcoatl!—Bayless uses his powers for good. And he doesn’t rest.
In 1987, Bayless introduced Frontera Grill, his groundbreaking ode to the regional cuisines of Mexico. Two years later, he topped himself with Topolobampo, Chicago’s best Mexican restaurant for over a quarter century now. The line at Xoco, his tremendous torta wonderland, has been clogging Illinois Street’s sidewalk since 2009. Each was opened only after years of research, training, and travel. Bayless nailed down the location he wanted, then painstakingly assembled the people and ingredients he needed. By the time customers got their first look, they were stepping into an authentic experience that felt as if it had always existed.
The two places Bayless launched side by side on Randolph Street’s restaurant row in May represent his most ambitious offerings in decades. Leña Brava and Cruz Blanca interpret specific areas and specialties of Mexico: the seafood of Baja California and the tacos of Oaxaca, respectively. Smart moves. No chef knows Mexico’s landscape more intimately—or better understands the power of zeroing in on specific locales.
The 78-seat space housing Leña Brava (Ferocious Wood) is breezy and pleasant, if a bit generic—the exposed brick columns, backlit bar, and red banquettes tilt far more West Loop than northwestern Mexico. But the seafood-focused menu captures the soul of the diverse cuisine of the northern Baja peninsula, with influences ranging from Italy to Japan.
Whether relying on a 600-degree wood-fired hearth or an impressive raw bar, Leña Brava’s dishes are light and inventive, simple flavors that pop through the roof. A perfect example is the salad of coconut three ways: slices of fresh young coconut topped by toasted coconut chips and a coconut milk dressing with serranos, roasted chayote chunks, and lime. Outstanding hiramasa yellowtail is a parade of buttery hunks topped with honey-manila-mango salsa and anchored by a bracing sauce of guajillo chilies and hibiscus flowers. And the texturally stunning mounds of grill-roasted pineapple, nested in dabs of rich goat cheese, are bumped up by the crunch of spicy hazelnuts and reinforced with a punchy orange-lime broth.
Leña Brava has no gas hookup and no stoves—basically, a kitchen dare that leads to terrific ingenuity. The husband-and-wife chefs Fred and Lisa Despres rely entirely on wood fire to braise an ample Creekstone Farms short rib overnight, which they serve atop a cauliflower mash with a scorching Oaxacan pasilla salsa. Spectacular octopus “carnitas” get seared, then enfolded in steamy tortillas with lime-pickled onions, frisée, and warm bacon dressing. And the caramelized cauliflower steak, served with a brown butter salpicon of raisins, sunflower seeds, olives, and homemade cheese, gets my vote for best vegetarian dish of 2016.
Leña Brava’s whole butterflied striped bass for the table comes grilled and seasoned in any of four ways. Oaxacan-style, it’s glazed in red chili adobo and topped with red pickled onions and frisée that render the side of green salsa superfluous. The flesh is charred and meaty and seductively tender—a visceral experience that makes you imagine your toes in the sands of Ensenada. Working with live fire liberated the chefs.
The kitchen can go decadent, too. I might choose the ripe butter-roasted plantain side with thick cream for my final meal, because it tastes like it would kill me quickly. Butter-roasted plantains also headline in the best dessert, a “banana” split with three ice creams (chocolate, cajeta, and smoked vanilla) drizzled with hot fudge and cajeta and sprinkled with toasted coconut, all surrounded by grilled pineapple, cashew-cherry toffee, and roasted cashews. Crispy, smoky, smooth, and original.
The savvy liquor program includes around 135 different mezcals and dangerously heady cocktails such as the 23 Degrees, a punch-like concoction of Chinaco blanco tequila, coconut water, guava, and lime. If only the service were so smooth. Some staffers were unengaged, others so overbearing I wanted to hide in the bathroom. Instead of hiring a bunch of hipsters, Leña Brava is run mostly by an army of giddy food dorks who have downed multiple shots of the Baja Kool-Aid. “I don’t even know how to use my microwave,” gushed the charmer who served our desserts. “But I love these desserts so much!”
I’m enthusiastic, too. Bayless could have done a bland chips-and-salsa Margaritaville on Randolph Street and still made a mint. With Leña Brava, he challenged himself and his team. The result is his best opening in 27 years.
Next door is Cruz Blanca, a fast-casual taqueria and cerveceria. The concept celebrates Smoke Alley, Oaxaca City’s legendary corridor of stalls known for meaty tacos and heavenly aromas. But instead of evoking Oaxaca’s ragged glory, Cruz Blanca goes for a West Loop vibe: lustrous beer tanks, blocky communal tables, a tiled mural.
I joined the nonstop line waiting to pick from the five taco options—Oaxacan chorizo, pork cecina, roasted chicken, cured flank steak, and portobello—which get ordered at a taco station. When I tried to add on sides and agua fresca, the busy taqueros referred me to a cashier. When I tried to order beer from her, she referred me to the bar. I half expected the bartender to refer me to a brewer upstairs. Armed with multiple receipts and no food, I scrambled for a spot at a communal table.
Before I could feel too put out, my meal arrived. Stacks of multiple proteins lay atop wonderful wood-grilled güero chilies and knob onions with lime wedges. A stack of spongy tortillas handmade from heirloom corn waited to fulfill their purpose. Everything I customized was tender and rustic, though the wood smoke flattened, rather than amplified, some flavors. The difference between the red chili pork loin and the roasted garlic chicken breast was negligible. In the end, the garlic-agave portobello tacos, spritzed with lime, retained the most character. Veg-heavy sides include an irresistible nopal salad: perfectly charred cactus studded with red onion slices, glistening with olive oil and lime, and sprinkled with queso fresco.
The best part of Cruz Blanca is its tiny brewery, a nod to Mexico City’s rich 19th-century history of German-, Austrian-, and French-style beer. From almost a dozen brews, the Smoke Alley, a dry-hopped wheat ale, shone brightest, brilliantly echoing the smoky tacos but still cooling the heat. Get your hands on the garlicky Oaxacan peanuts, and you’ll want to try every beer on the menu.
Neither of these restaurants is a game changer akin to Frontera or Topo. But that’s because Bayless’s unprecedented success has created a scene that makes those kinds of revelations rareties. Most every restaurant on Randolph is in love with itself: “chef” this and “chef” that. But on my visits to Leña Brava and Cruz Blanca, the waitstaff never mentioned the famous chef once. Instead of putting him on a pedestal, they bow down to the same god as at every other Bayless restaurant: Mexico.