No one could really argue that Rick Bayless, the remarkable Chicago-based chef, television host, and expert in the diverse cuisines of Mexico, has been anything but a singular, transformative food personality. His restaurants, including Topolobampo, Xoco, Frontera Grill and more, have been showered with awards—as have his cookbooks. Indeed, it’s not an overstatement to say that he has had as great an impact on serious Mexican cuisine in the United States as anyone.
Now, with his expansion into Tortas Frontera, eaters outside of Chicago have the chance to ostensibly experience his food.
The key word there, however, is “ostensibly.” Because while Tortas Frontera provides a more than pleasant diversion from other quick-eat-style options, and certainly quality that’s greater by several orders of magnitude, it is still mainly a restaurant for a fast bite.
That’s not a bad thing at all, and within that context, the new outpost in University City is a very solid option. Chipotle pork tinga bowl is anchored by tender pork and homemade chorizo, spice heat swirling with the aromatics of the braising liquid and offset by cooling slices of avocado. Shrimp torta was well-composed with goat cheese, chipotle garlic mojo, arugula and black bean spread, but the “smoky garlic shrimp” showed little evidence of either. Hand-mashed guacamole could have used more acid, but it remained an excellent side dish. Skip the green chile caldo: It wants to be more flavorful than it actually is.
In any case, the goal here isn’t to win any James Beard Awards; rather, it’s to provide the local community with a healthy, affordable meal on the go, crafted by hand and with an eye toward local ingredients. By that metric, it succeeds laudably.
Tortas Frontera at the Arch
301 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania. rickbayless.com
Cuisine: Fast Mexican.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 8am-10pm; Fri., 8am-8pm; Sat., 11am-4pm; Sun., 11am-10pm.
Dinner with Luke Palladino