Rick Bayless made his first impression in 1987 with Frontera Grill, and it was a great one, introducing Chicagoans to previously unfamiliar Mexican flavors and culinary history. But it’s his follow-up, Topolobampo, that opened our eyes and palates to the then-radical notion of Mexican food as haute cuisine.
Since 1989, the hallowed River North restaurant has been the model of consistency and excellence, retaining four stars from this publication almost nonstop, primarily by capturing and distilling an unabashed love for Mexican culture. This approach can take many forms: a regional showstopper such as a puffy gordita inflada filled with crisp pork belly and multiple kinds of mushrooms in a chipotle hollandaise; a Oaxacan mezcal flight; or fresh king crab nestled in a handmade tortilla featuring organic heirloom corn from Mexico.
It can go deeper, too, as in an inspired themed menu that attempts to capture a different emotion with each course (lust, confusion, nostalgia). Topolobampo’s earnest staff comforts and enlightens in equal measure, and an impressive art collection on the walls lends the space a museum-like air. Yet it also manages to feel celebratory, honoring a cuisine that speaks to both the stomach and the soul.