Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mini Dish: Frontera Fresco at Macy’s

Rick Bayless Paints Mexican Food in Lime

When celebrity chefs decide to make food for the average American, it’s a challenging balance of buying quality ingredients, exercising restaurant-style cooking and plating, and offering approachable pricing with a no-nonsense dining environment. Chefs like Wolfgang Puck and (local version) Charles Phan of The Slanted Door have brought their culinary visions to America’s shopping malls to varying success.

In the basement of Macy’s flagship Union Square store in San Francisco, celebrity chef Rick Bayless recently opened his latest spot to bring his noted authentic Mexican cuisine to the masses. A successful restaurateur in Chicago, cookbook author and TV chef, Bayless has headed west with his Frontera Fresco concept (the first Frontera opened at Macy’s in Chicago).

Frontera Fresco positions itself as a place for gourmet Mexican street food, fast. Bayless has said in other reports that he doesn’t like to open restaurants outside of his home base of Chicago that he can’t supervise first-hand. So the idea of a full-fledge restaurant in San Francisco appears out of the question. With the smaller Frontera Fresco format, which serves a limited menu, Bayless can feel assured that his local staff can translate his vision when focused on a few select items.

So what can you find when you visit Bayless’ Frontera Fresco?

First, I recommend sunglasses so you can shield yourself from the dominant lime-green walls that wake up passersby as they walk off the escalators leading to the basement food court at Macy’s. (Frontera Fresco has the prime spot where the chocolates section used to be outside the food court area.) Don’t get me wrong, I love the color lime (I was actually wearing a similar lime-colored sweat shirt on my first visit) but the vibrancy really does get to you if you stare at it too long. (Since my first visit, I’ve learned to sit on the side near the grill that doesn’t have any walls.)

Bayless’ scaled down menu includes tortas (sandwiches), huaraches (flat bread), quesadillas, salads, tamales and soups. My first thought was what happened to the burritos and tacos? Are burritos and tacos not authentic Mexican street food? Not having traveled to Mexico, I don’t have the answer. I just know that burritos are often the best value for a lunchtime bite. But apparently not at Frontera Fresco.

In the last few weeks, I’ve visited Frontera three times, mostly out of curiosity and convenience (I had to do some shopping for birthday gifts lately). My last visit was this past Saturday, when Bayless was actually in town for a Macy’s event that afternoon. (I didn’t stay for the event, but I did see a frenzied Bayless rushing out the Frontera Fresco kitchen with an assistant heading off to what I assume was some last-minute meeting about the special event.)

The tiny eatery operates like a restaurant, with chefs in white jackets supervising the line and servers who are quick to clear the dishes. You order at the counter and get a number, and then servers bring your food to you on shiny trays.

Side note:
There’s no salsa bar like other fast-food Mexican places in California. Instead, you have to select the salsa you want on the side when you place your order. There are only three types of salsas (Jalapeno Cilantro, Tomatillo and Chipotle) but be sure to ask. In the beginning, the servers always asked me my salsa selection but in my last visits, they’ve neglected to ask so I think they’re slacking.

Here’s a look at what I’ve tried so far at Frontera:

Smoked Chipotle Chicken Huaraches ($6.95). I’ve never had this Mexican version of flat bread, so I decided to check it out. It came with chicken chunks, grilled red onions, red peppers and aged Cotija cheese. It looked huge when it arrived at my table, almost like a salad pizza. But when I first bit into it, I didn’t like the texture of the bread. It was soft and chewy, which almost gave it a taste of being stale. I wished it had more of a grilled flavor to it. While I liked the bean spread inside, all the toppings made it a difficult item to eat.

Torta Cubana ($7.50). After recently tasting my first Cuban sandwich at this taco truck, I decided to see what a fancy Torta Cubana would be like. (If you recall, my taco truck Cuban sandwich was filled with hamburger meat and hot dog bits. So anything would be a step up.) Bayless creates his Torta Cubana using pork loin and applewood-smoked bacon, all pressed between grilled bread. Of course, I’m a big fan of any grilled sandwiches or panini so this was a substantial lunch treat with its tasty bacon strips and thinly sliced pork loin mixed in with avocado and cilantro cream.

Sweet Corn & Green Chile Tamale ($2.95). Overall, I’m not a big fan of Mexican food because of what I perceive (yes, I admit that it may just be my perception) as a lack of diversity in ingredients (i.e., meat, beans, rice, tortilla) in the dishes. But I do have to say that I love tamales. I think it’s the comforting cornmeal. So I tried the sweet corn tamale, which turned out to be the most surprisingly delicious thing on Frontera Fresco’s menu. The sweet corn lived up to its sweetness, and the tamale was further moistened by creamy goat cheese. It was filling, making the $2.95 price tag one of the better ideas for a value lunch.

Chipotle Chicken Tamale ($2.95). Having had such a wonderful experience with the sweet corn tamale, I tried the only other tamale flavor on the menu: the chipotle chicken tamale. Unfortunately, this doesn’t compare to the sweet corn tamale. The chicken and corn masa were dry, giving the overall tamale a less than comforting feel. I had to pour on some extra salsa to give it some life.

Corn and Roasted Poblano Chowder ($3.50). This soup came out looking like something you might order at a fancy restaurant, with its crema swirls and sprinkles of aged Cotija cheese. But the texture was a bit rough and the taste was aggressive, with the roasted pepper taste overpowering any sweetness from the corn. It’s not something I would order again, even at a restaurant.

I also should note that I had one of the eatery’s Limeade (the classic flavor, $1.95) and it was this syrupy sick sweet-tartness that killed my tastebuds. Stick with water.

There’s no question that Bayless has sourced his Frontera Fresco with some quality ingredients. All the items tasted fresh. But the approach and balance of tastes, to me, fail to rise above other fancy Mexican fast food joints like Tacubaya in Berkeley or even straightforward places like La Salsa. While it’s true that certain Frontera Fresco items offer a distinguishable flavor (good or bad) that’s different than what I’ve tasted in California, I can’t say that it’s enticing enough to come back often, especially at the price level.

Tasting “authentic” Mexican cuisine in California via Chicago left me confused about what is the true taste of authentic Mexican cuisine. Sigh. Guess I have to add Mexico to my list of places to visit.

Because this is a mini review and Frontera Fresco is not a full-fledge restaurant, I’m not giving out my usual ratings. But I would say I’d definitely go back for the sweet corn tamale and maybe the grilled sandwiches, but nothing else.

Frontera Fresco at Macy’s Union Square, 170 O’Farrell St., San Francisco, basement level.


Anonymous said...

Hello Ben,

My name is Shannon and I'm the editorial assistant at Following up on a recent email invitation to be a part of our newly launched Foodbuzz Featured Publisher program, I just want to reiterate that I am very impressed with the quality of your posts. I would love to send you more details about the program, so if you are interested, please email me at

I am a huge Rick Bayless fan, so I am looking forward to trying his place.


Shannon Eliot
Editorial Assistant,

Passionate Eater said...

Seems like fast food gourmet is all the rage these days (the last gourmet fast food place I tried was Wich Craft) and I would say that it is overpriced and often doesn't tend to do justice to the brand name of the chef/business. I would still love to try Frontera-Macy's out. The pix look mouthwatering!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, doesn't rise above even La Salsa? That doesn't sound very promising! I am a big fan of Bayless' and am disappointed to hear that... I was looking forward to checking it out too.

Anonymous said...

The original Frontera Fresco location at Macy's in Chicago has tacos, and they are AWESOME. Some of the best tacos I've ever had. It's a shame they haven't made it to San Fran.