Perhaps that’s a distinction that isn’t quite clear. Here in Texas, when we talk about “Mexican food,” it’s tacos, quesadillas, and fajitas. It’s Mama Ninfa and Joe T. Garcia. That’s Tex-Mex. And it’s awesome. One of the great things about living in Texas is that it’s so easy to be spoiled by the ready availability of marvelous Tex-Mex. There’s the queso flammeado at the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation or the fajitas at Lupe Tortilla or the margaritas at El Tiempo.
There is another type of Mexican food out there. In Houston, we are blessed with an excellent example of it, Hugo’s Restaurant. Along with Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, these three restaurants stand for a kind of authentic, creative, inspiring cuisine that honors traditional Mexican food. It goes beyond the stable, predictable, and delicious standard dishes we think of as “Mexican food.”
The most defining thing about Topolobampo, reinforced in no uncertain terms on a recent visit for dinner, is that regional Mexican cuisine is a bountiful source of creative and cutting edge cooking. The food at Topolobampo stands in line with the finest American cuisine. It is executed with the greatest skill, and the love of Rick Bayless, chef de cuisine Brian Enyart, and their kitchen brigade is evident in each dish. But the way Topolobampo achieves it results is unique in certain ways compared to its peers.
At many fine dining restaurants — the French Laundry, Daniel, Le Bernardin, Alinea, and its brethren — the buzz word seems to be “purity.” That is, the food is founded on the principle that the ingredients (often many in each dish) complement each other, allowing the components to stand out in their most pure, delicious form. This is indisputably a winning method and combination, one that has taken root at the core of American food. It is not a bad thing at all; honoring ingredients and letting them speak for themselves by expressing pure, true flavors is a noble task that produces stunning results.
At Topolobampo, however, the fundamental methodology is somewhat different. Instead of combining ingredients, often in novel ways, that allows the purity of each component to stand out, Topolobampo places greater emphasis on compound flavors. The interplay of the ingredients, combining to produce the unexpected, is the order of the day. This isn’t opposed to the method of the standard-bearers of contemporary American cuisine. It merely is a change in focus. The French Laundry, for example, doesn’t only allow individual flavors to stand out. There are creative, even counterintuitive, flavor combinations that cause an eater to marvel. But the primary emphasis is on purity of flavor.
Topolobampo offers three tasting menus, in addition to an a la carte menu, each of which stands out for the unique fusion of ingredients. The individual components are featured in their glory, but it is the interplay and strength in combination of the ingredients together that is the cornerstone of Rick Bayless’s food.
This dedication to lifting ingredients to greater highs when put together — the temptation to use the word “synergy” is embarrassing — was apparent from the first course in the Adventurer’s tasting menu available February 24 through March 21.
It began with a Ceviche Rosa de Kona Kampachi, easily the most creative and delightful ceviche I’ve ever encountered. The fish, of the finest quality of course, was marinated in lime and ancho chile. Slices of baby blood oranges gave a fuller, sweeter citrus flavor. Flanking the fish on either side was an almond-infused shaved ice, which simultaneously kept the fish cold and gave a subtle sweetness that played off the hint of spice in the ancho chile, and ancho-candied kumquats, which stood up to the spice and brought out the sweetness of the fish. This dish was a revelation and set the tone for the entire meal.
Next came Chilpachole de Jaiba, a chipotle-lobster broth soup with king crab and small masa dumplings, with epazote and charales. It was a wonder how the lobster flavor came through so singularly in the broth, bolstered by the smoky and sweet chipotle and underscored by a subtle spice that belatedly came from the back of your tongue and lightly coated the palate. The masa played into these flavors perfectly, of course, a strong yet adaptable flavor. The king crab refused to get lost in these strong flavors, bolstered and carried on the strength and purity of the lobster broth.
Third, a play on traditional Mexican pibil, which is made with pork. Tonight, the Pescada “Pibil” was a black cod roasted with achiote in banana leaves, with pureed white beans, a fruity guero chile jelly, and habanero-pickled red onion. Without a doubt, this is one of the finest fish dishes in the world. With a simple pan sauce, the black cod sings. With a bit of crispy skin and a texture and flavor so buttery and decadent, it was enhanced by the earthy achiote and acidic verve and spice of the pickled onions. This dish is a profound achievement; one not to be lost in memory; one to build a menu around.
The main protein consisted of two beef preparations: slow-cooked oxtail that was then seared, giving it a deeper, caramelized richness, and braised short ribs. It was accompanied by hominy, beauty heart radish, Napa cabbage, bone marrow, and lime — the presentation was similar to that of a coleslaw, with the ingredients placed together in a way that made it unavoidable to eat them together, the Napa cabbage the conduit for the flavors. But the accompaniments were sidelights; this dish embodies the term “beefy.” The beef itself, grass-fed, had terrific texture and flavor. But the sauce, a simple jus, was pure intensity, showing all the nuance of the best beef. It was a purist’s moment in a meal of combinations, a solo by an ideal ingredient in a meal of duos and choruses.
The beef was a hard act to follow, but pastry chef Melissa Novak wasn’t about to be left out of this party. A trio of ice cream sandwiches: (1) Negro Modelo chocolate ice cream with cacao nibs; (2) buttermilk-tangerine ice cream with brown-butter pecan crunch; and (3) pistachio ice cream with pistachio-chocolate brittle. The portion was large. Each ice cream came sandwiched between triangles of chocolate cake. Normally, eating a dessert like this, I’m inclined to sample each in turn. With this, I dug into the buttermilk-tangerine and was hooked. It was impossible to stop eating it. The succulent sweetness of the tangerine got a slightly sharp note from the buttermilk, with the chocolate supporting nicely without overshadowing the more delicate flavors. The Negro Modelo was tasty, deep and rich, almost a chocolate overload. But then in swooped the pistachio, a handful of bites capping an extraordinary meal on an extraordinary high point. The gorgeous nut flavor enhanced the creamy texture of the ice cream, complemented by the slight bitterness of the chocolate. It was an inspired combination.
There is no doubt that Topolobampo, routinely mentioned among the handful of best restaurants in Chicago, surely deserves those accolades. But it is clear that the kitchen if operating at the height of its powers. Any serious nationwide discussion of best restaurants should include it.