Mexican cookbook author Rick Bayless opened Frontera Grill in 1987, and his chain of Mexican restaurants grew to a total of 10 over the ensuing decades. Most were located in the River North or West Loop neighborhoods in Chicago, and run with the aid of longtime business partner Manny Valdes, a relationship that fractured last year. Now, with the reported backing of the Philippines’ largest fast-food chain Jollibee, Bayless has recently opened a first offshoot of his nearly year-and-a-half-old sandwich shop Tortazo on Broadway just west of Madison Square. Besides an establishment in Disney World, it’s his only foray outside the Windy City.
Years ago, I often found myself in Chicago on assignment, and sought out Frontera Grill and its pricier sister Topolobampo for a scholarly and somewhat austere take on Mexican food. Both featured a roster of regional specialties, some unavailable at the taquerias then proliferating on Chicago’s South Side and in suburbs like Cicero, which I also avidly visited. In a fine dining idiom, Bayless’s food was great in quite a different way than the taquerias.
So, I was excited to see what Bayless — a white chef born in Oklahoma — would do with the torta, Mexico’s favorite sandwich. As I arrived one sunny autumn afternoon, I was surprised to see the enviable real estate Tortazo enjoys. Its block of Broadway has been cordoned off and traffic is diverted to Fifth Avenue, meaning that the restaurant commands humongous amounts of outdoor space. Indoors a few tables, a bar, and some counter seating are provided. An equal amount of square footage is occupied by an order counter, and a bustling kitchen is visible through windows.
Five tortas deploy the classic telera roll with a groove in the center, where the top and bottom of the bread are browned on a plancha. And while tortas have been ballooning in size at our own taquerias and at Mexican sandwich specialists like Torta Neeza and Don Pepe, these are of more modest size. One still makes a filling meal, but you won’t be taking half of it home.
First on the menu is the “crispy chicken milanesa” ($14). While the equivalent torta from a taqueria sports ample layers of avocado, bouncy Oaxacan cheese, refried black beans, mayo, lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickled jalapenos — making its razor-thin cutlet part of a glorious ensemble — the chicken cutlet at Tortazo is clearly the preening star of the show. It’s plump and well-crumbed. It begs comparison with its European antecedent the Viennese schnitzel (though the Mexican moniker credits Milan). The meager supporting players have been fancified, so now we have a tomatillo-avocado salsa, and modest amounts of shredded Napa cabbage and crumbly cotija cheese.
The last two garnishes are clearly formulated with a longer shelf life in mind, a boon to a fast-casual chain, but despite this hidden agenda of stockpileable ingredients, the sandwich is great. On successive visits I tried two more tortas. The cochinita pibil (a Yucatan specialty of citrus-marinated pork), was just OK. But the torta Cubana ($14.50) — invented in Mexico City on Calle Republica de Cuba using pork loin, luncheon meat ham, and hots dogs, topped with a fried egg — has been even more transformed by Bayless than the chicken milanesa torta.
Tortazo’s Cubana features bacon and smoked pork loin slathered with invented condiments like cilantro crema and chipotle mustard. It’s a BLT on stimulants, and every bite is pure smoky pleasure. Other dishes transferred from the menu at Chicago’s original Tortazo include a trio of salad bowls that, though large, are largely forgettable, and three more “bowls,” which are pretty much indistinguishable from the salads, all using ingredients seen elsewhere on the menu like tortilla chips, guacamole, cheeses, and, more interestingly, swatches of pickled poblano chile and toasted pumpkin seeds.
Speaking of tortilla chips, these are ubiquitous on the menu, but other forms of the corn that characterize most Mexican antojitos are mainly absent. There’s a wonderful juicy quesadilla featuring steak and mushrooms ($15), but it’s made with a flour tortilla rather than the masa wrapper that Pueblan immigrants have taught us to love.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the dishes to pay special attention to are the more experimental ones created for NYC’s venue. One is a shrimp cocktail also containing jicama and avocado, with a thick dressing more like a sweet vinaigrette than the lime bath of a ceviche. Another is a lone tlayuda ($19.50) topped with — not chorizo or chicken tinga — but beets and goat cheese. An odd-looking pair of scissors is provided to break it into edible wedges, and the famous Oaxacan bar snack is marred only by an excess of arugula, an annoying fast-casual staple more immortal in its longevity than a Greek god.
Another anomaly is a full liquor license, something rare for fast-casual spots. Besides beer and canned wine, you can get a not-bad margarita. Non-alcoholic, fruity beverages that change by the day are also available. For dessert, there are warm churros shaped like pretzel nuggets, and paletas in various flavors deposited in a reach-in freezer case, from La Newyorkina.
So place your order, take a number on a stick, and find a seat either indoors or out while you wait 10 or 15 minutes for your order to be freshly prepared. Unlike any other Mexican restaurant in town, Tortazo features thoughtful-though-occasionally misfiring takes on the cuisine, at a price point midway between taquerias and full-blown restaurants like Atla and Oxomoco. And the novel tortas are worth experiencing on their own.