Chili Reception

He's from Oklahoma, he lives in Chicago, but chef Rick Bayless cooks the best Mexican food in this country—some would even say any country.

In this country Mexico's is a good-time cuisine, to be sure. When you want something easy and fun, nothing beats a Margarita with guacamole and tacos followed by enchiladas and Dos Equis. But what's left once you satisfy your cravings for hot chilies and salt? Can a Mexican restaurant go beyond basic burritos and rank with this country's very best?

In Rick Bayless' passionate hands the answer is yes. It is an open secret among food lovers that Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, Bayless' adjacent storefront restaurants in downtown Chicago, are worth a journey—places where the food is so expert, so surprising, and so satisfying that you go whenever you can. Bayless is revered by his fellow cooks. In 1995 the James Beard Foundation, whose awards are considered the Oscars of the food world, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, which is made up of chefs, cooking teachers, and writers, each named Bayless Chef of the Year, the first time one person has received two such awards in the same year. But the ultimate tribute is that visiting Mexicans come to the vibrant Frontera Grill, where the fare is inspired street food, and to Topolobampo, the calmer and more elegant of the two restaurants, to taste again flavors they remember from their childhood. They say they can't find such complex, refined flavors in today's urban Mexico, even in the best restaurants of Mexico City.

How has Bayless, a handsome, brown-haired, and bearded man of 44 who half drawls in the accent of his native Oklahoma City, launched an essentially folk cuisine? How has a man without a drop of Mexican blood, at least as far as he knows, helped preserve a vanishing style of cooking thousands of miles north of its origins? You certainly wouldn't guess by meeting him that he has singlehandedly changed the image of Mexican food. Bayless never seems to be in a rush: He's always happy to chat with diners about which chilies should first be roasted to bring out their fruity flavors and add a little char, or how to slow-roast winter plum tomatoes to intensify their flavors for sauces, or how he discovered the fantastic pit-roasted pork, seasoned and wrapped in banana leaves, on a trip to the Yucatán. Even in the kitchen shared by the two restaurants, his baseball cap bobs from one side to another at a stately pace, and he never raises his voice to his staff, to most of whom he speaks Spanish. Very uncheflike behavior.

Bayless speaks with the precision of the excellent writer he is, yet his aw-shucks manner betrays no pretension—just enthusiasm for and seemingly limitless knowledge of the country he adopted 25 years ago. His family owned a barbecue restaurant, and at a tender age he became the family cook, educating himself from the books of Julia Child. He dreamed of travel and figured that Mexico was the closest he'd come to any foreign country.

At 14 he took a family trip to Mexico City; and in the 30 years since, he has visited every region of the country, alone or with his wife, Deann, whom he met when they were graduate students at the University of Michigan (he in linguistics, and she in theater studies). Both catered to help support themselves. She prepared a 25-course meal that impressed him; he taught cooking classes, too, most of them French, because that's what people would pay to learn. The newly married couple spent the better part of five years living in Mexico, when it became clear to Bayless that he would rather popularize its food than write a thesis about its language.

Now Bayless goes on culinary expeditions with members of his staff of 65 so they can see and taste his inspiration firsthand, and even takes along enthusiastic patrons who want to try for themselves the originals of the dishes they have discovered at the restaurants. Whenever he's in Mexico Bayless eats at every roadside stand, market stall, and grandmother's house he can find, keeping track with scholarly dedication of how the food was made and where the ingredients came from. He has made dishes accessible to average American home cooks in two masterly books, Authentic Mexican and the more recent Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, in which teaching—perhaps his real calling—comes first.

In this country, the image of Mexican food was set early and misleadingly. Most dishes we know as Mexican come from the northern border region and the city of Guadalajara (which sent thousands of migrants to California and Texas in the 1920s). Taco Bell and other fast-food chains drew on the region's limited menu, fried tacos and tostadas and a few salsas and sauces, for their restaurants. Guadalajara, Bayless says, is home to "some of the mildest food in Mexico and without a doubt the least complex. If you grew up around it you would have a passion for it. I didn't." Tex—Mex, the other well-known variant of Mexican food, is an expedient version of Western frontier food, made by cooks with limited equipment and ingredients—lots of grilled meats in good times and beans in bad, with a few punchy condiments to add more interest than ketchup.

No wonder the food at Bayless' restaurants comes as a revelation. "So many people don't want to describe our food as Mexican," Bayless says, "because it doesn't relate to what they've had. I grew up with Julia Child teaching me that food could be prepared in ways that were transcendent: It didn't have to be snobbish, but it had to be good. I took that mentality to Mexico, where I saw that people were concentrating on how to make whatever they were cooking the very best it could be."

An example of such unexpected sophistication is a dish of tacos filled with wild greens, which Bayless discovered at a street vendor's stall in Toluca, west of Mexico City. Toluca remained an Indian stronghold for a century and a half after the Spanish conquest, and thus retained many native cooking traditions—including the use of quelites, a wild green called lamb's-quarters in English. The street vendor first boiled the greens, then sautéed them with onions and garlic that had been caramelized in oil. In that alone the dish is sophisticated street fare, since it requires one more pot and heat source than a typical vendor has at his disposal. But then the vendor put the cooked greens into cornmeal tortillas made by an adjacent vendor—"you don't get better or fresher flatbreads than that," Bayless says—and topped the taco with a robust, pungently garlicky salsa, homemade with chipotle, the smoky, fruity chili. "When I tell people about tacos with wild greens," Bayless says, "they think it sounds so upscale and contrived. But it's really poor people's food."

Like so much food invented by the poor, the dish proved expensive to reproduce in Chicago, where produce suppliers don't have lamb's-quarters. Then one day Bayless saw a suspiciously familiar plant growing along the jogging path beside Lake Shore Drive. Lamb's-quarters! He didn't take them home and make tacos, but he did send some to a California farmer he knew, who "thought I was the stupidest person in the world to be willing to pay eight bucks a pound for this weed he had growing behind his house." Pay he did, and the dish has stayed on the menu, with grilled red onions in place of sautéed white ones, to reinforce the sweetness and smokiness of the chipotle. Now the greens come from a local farmer—the only one who didn't think Bayless was crazy for wanting a weed.

It's not just the ingredients but the way they're prepared and cooked that sets Bayless' food apart. Just the peeling, seeding, chopping, washing, and soaking required, all by hand, mean that Bayless needs a staff as large as a three-star French restaurant's. All that labor also begins to explain why more sophisticated Mexican cuisine hasn't caught on among other chefs, although Bayless has had great influence on chefs who cook the New Southwest cuisine.

If the glory of French cuisine is its repertory of sauces, the same is true of Mexican cooking. Its salsas, or sauces, define the character of a dish, and the main difference between regions in Mexico is which chilies are used in their salsas: fresh or dried, smoked or not. More than anything, Bayless' use of chilies reveals his mastery. They never make you reach, gasping, for a drink of water, however alluring the afterburn. They're one component in the carefully built flavor structure of a Bayless dish, ducking in and out of perception.

This comes from the way they are prepared: Nearly every ingredient in a salsa, in fact, requires a different preparation to achieve exactly the desired flavor. Fresh sweet bell peppers or fresh hot chilies, both of which figure in many salsas, are roasted and peeled and then sliced fine. Dried chilies are soaked and dry-roasted over a hot griddle without oil, or toasted in oil—lightly fried to bring out their flavor and also add deep unctuousness to the final sauce. To add yet another layer of caramelized flavor, the oil-toasted chilies may then be puréed, and the resulting paste quickly sautéed again, then added to the sauce at a certain point in the cooking in order to change its flavor. Salsas are often cooked, although in the United States they are understood to be uncooked.

Bayless wants diners to experience the full "tap dance of flavors" in a salsa, so the tomatoes must be perfectly ripe. (It goes without saying that canned tomatoes are unacceptable.) Every winter Bayless tries tomatoes from various countries (Israel, Belgium, Mexico) until he finds ones with decent flavor and texture. They might be boiled, to give a fresh, acidic saucelike consistency, or slow-roasted for hours in low heat to bring out their sweetness and give them the fruit-leather texture of dried chilies. In Bayless' uncooked salsas the raw garlic and onions are amazingly sweet: The secret to taming raw onions, he says, is to rinse them first in cold water, which also makes them infinitely more digestible.

Bayless values almost every region of his adopted country, but he returns again and again for inspiration to the food of Oaxaca, "land of the seven moles." A mole is salsa squared—the pinnacle of Mexican food's complexity—and despite its reputation as chocolate sauce for meat, not all moles call for chocolate. The various seeds and nuts—pumpkin, sunflower, pine nuts—that give flavor and texture to moles and their sister sauce, pipiánes, must be shelled and roasted, and then pounded by hand in a mortar for the right texture.

Oaxaca incorporated ingredients brought by the Spanish without diluting the native influence. As an example, Bayless cites black mole, which is spiced with cloves, cinnamon, and anise—all introduced by spice traders after the conquest. (The red chili pepper in its base is thoroughly New World, but the thickening goes back to elements introduced by the Spanish: bread and almonds, instead of the native nuts that thicken so many moles.) Black mole has "such a beautiful Indian profile enriched with all these Spanish elements," Bayless says. "It's a perfect dish."

Tacos, tostadas, and quesadillas, those Mexican standbys, also appear in his restaurants, but with new ingredients that elevate them to haute cuisine. All are based on white corn, of course, a mainstay of the Mexican diet. Not just any corn will do. Bayless buys fresh-ground white-corn masa, or corn dough. Prepared plain, it makes tortillas. With a bit of fat and seasonings, painstaking beating (to give it a fluffy texture), and steaming in banana leaves it becomes tamales. Bayless employs one Mexican woman, who grew up knowing just how masa should feel, to do nothing but shape and bake tortillas on a griddle.

Or diners can use tortillas to roll tacos by hand, the way they would moo shu pork in a Chinese restaurant. (In Mexico tacos are made with fresh tortillas, not deep-fried U-shaped ones, as they are here.) At Topolobampo you can do this with mochomos, an appetizer that consists of shredded flank steak with deep-fried red-onion strings, avocado, and a spicy red salsa, the steak first boiled, then shredded, and then fried so the fibers are nearly black and deliciously caramelized. Another appetizer— tostadas of chicken tinga—provides triangles of toasted tortillas to be topped with a sweet, brick-red ragout of shredded chicken in a roasted-tomato, smoky chili sauce served at room temperature.

Bayless makes quesadillas by sprinkling tortillas so fresh they're still baking on the griddle with a mild Mexican cow's-milk cheese and filling them with huitlacoche, a fungus whose mushroomlike spores grow in corn kernels rather than on trees or in the ground. Huitlacoche is the chic Mexican ingredient of the moment, for its unavailability (most farmers consider the fungus an aberrance and a sign of neglectful farming and burn it) and its taste, which is somewhere between porcini mushrooms and summer truffles.

Topolobampo's success has led to a near doubling in size. There are now 80 seats, no-smoking, and reservations only. At the 70-seat Frontera Grill reservations aren't accepted, and long waits are common. In both restaurants the feel is familial: Diners are likely to meet Deann or Lanie, the couple's six-year-old daughter, who has a special playroom downstairs and sometimes wanders through to greet family friends. Contemporary Mexican paintings of exceptional quality cover the apricot-sponged walls; banquettes are upholstered in earth tones; whimsical pottery lamps and figures are arrayed on shelves that run the length of the walls; and a wrought-iron, waist-high ornamental fence snakes along the center of the room. Service is enthusiastic, and the wait staff is well prepared to answer questions about ingredients.

Often the elements are sweet. Bayless is drawn to the long-simmered sauces of Mexican food, both tangy and sweet, because of his upbringing in a barbecue restaurant. "I think when I tasted a mole for the first time I recognized a kindred spirit from what I grew up with," he says. "One thing we've lost in barbecue is a sense of freshness. Everything's made with canned products."

The depth and freshness Bayless remembers characterize most of his main courses, like wood-grilled pork loin with dark chili sauce—as complex as any classic espagnole (brown) sauce—and toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Long-roasted vegetables, like the sweet—sour tomatillo, or sauces based on roasted tomatoes also have earthy, sweet flavors, pointed up by the natural acid of the tomato and the tangy burn of various chili peppers.

Bayless has become a local hero in Chicago. One recent evening he dined with Deann and Lanie at their favorite neighborhood restaurant, the Soul Kitchen, which serves New Orleans food. When the couple at the next table rose to leave, the woman turned to the Bayless family and said, "Thank you for working so hard to bring us such wonderful food." Others are much more direct, like the driver who startled Bayless by leaning out the window of his car and yelling, "You're the chef guy! We love your restaurant!"

Topolobampo is open for lunch Tues.—Fri. 11:30 a.m.—2 p.m.; dinner: Tues.—Thurs. 5:30—9:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. until 10:30 p.m. $70. Frontera Grill is open for lunch Tues.—Fri. 11:30 a.m.—2:30 p.m.; brunch: Sat. from 10:30 a.m.; dinner: Tues.—Fri. 5:20—10 p.m.; Sat. until 11 p.m. $45. 445 North Clark Street, Chicago; 312-661-1434.

Corby Kummer wrote about Jean Georges in the July/August issue.