I turned 25 last week, which was both exciting and well, depressing. I remember how birthdays used to be in college – week-long extravaganzas, celebrating with about 47 of my “closest friends.” I remember making multiple Facebook event invites every year. They all had about 200 invitees. I actually even wore a tiara on my 21st birthday. True story
A lot has changed in the past four years. On March 5th (the day of my actual birthday) this year, the only thing that raged was the snowstorm outside my apartment – it was Chicago’s biggest of the season, which I found personally offensive. I spent the night of my actual birthday at a quiet dinner at Topolobampo.
The location of the dinner wasn’t revealed to me until I actually pulled up outside. I wasn’t surprised at all, but I was definitely excited. I had heard rave reviews about this particular Rick Bayless restaurant. Of Bayless’ three River north Mexican eateries, this is the most upscale and – according to many – also the best. The other two are XOCO and Frontera Grill.
It’s a Mexican restaurant, but don’t come expecting enchiladas. The flavors are bold but the dishes are certainly an elevated take on the cuisine – think meats and fish prepared with top-notch accompaniments and Mexican flavors.
We started with a ceviche (shrimp and calamari) and an order of queso. Of the two, I preferred the ceviche, which is a lot coming from me; I’m a cheese fanatic. The ceviche was citrusy and light, a really nice way to start a meal. The queso was really nice as well, but another example of how the restaurant may throw off someone who is expecting Mexican food a la Chipotle. I confess that I envisioned a big, bubbly bowl of dippable melted cheese when I ordered this, but what I actually got was more or less of cheese with a set of warm, soft tortillas on the side. Really nice, but the cheese was a little too mild for my taste.
I went with the short rib for my main dish. It looked really small, but was quite filling and extremely tender (marinating the meat for 30 hours will do that.)
There are tasting menu options, but they all included dishes that appeared on the a la carte menu and were quite pricey. I opted to just order off the menu. The one really nice thing about this place is that it’s fancy but not stuffy. Our waitress made it clear that the tasting menus were not set in stone. They were carefully constructed, but substitutions weren’t forbidden (hear that, Kuma’s?) and dietary restrictions could be accommodated. That lack of pretension is really refreshing.
I think you should:
Try it. It’s a nice special occasion meal, the quality of the ingredients justify the price, and everything was made with a lot of attention.
Go on: A weeknight. Even on a Tuesday, even with the snowstorm, it was lively inside.
Wear: Something nice but not flashy. Compared to the River North hot spots, this place is quite conservative. Hide your legs, your cleave.
Go with: Your parents. I may have turned a quarter century old that day, but I was probably the youngest person there.
Order: The changing menu makes it hard to predict what will be available when you go. This is a good thing: It means the ingredients are fresh and in season.
445 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60654
Image credit: Rick Bayless