Frontera Fresco falls short

The most flavorful of the tacos on offer at Frontera Fresco, the chipotle shrimp taco is filled with super plump shrimp, avocado and roasted poblano peppers and onions and topped with fresh wild arugula and a bit of lime.

Amber Gibson/The Daily Northwestern

The most flavorful of the tacos on offer at Frontera Fresco, the chipotle shrimp taco is filled with super plump shrimp, avocado and roasted poblano peppers and onions and topped with fresh wild arugula and a bit of lime.

Amber Gibson, Columnist

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My reaction to Frontera Fresco is similar to my reaction to the film “Les Miserables”: Both had been so highly anticipated for so long they were bound to disappoint. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with either; they just weren’t life-changing.

Before school even started, students were eager for Rick Bayless’ fast-casual Mexican food joint, previously located only in Macy’s, to arrive on campus. Originally we were told we would be chowing down on delicious tortas, tacos and quesadillas in Norris shortly after school began but, as with any new restaurant, delays occurred, and we were left salivating until the place finally opened to much fanfare during Reading Week.

The food here necessarily needs to be simplified from Bayless’ River North restaurants — XOCO, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. But that shouldn’t mean a sacrifice in quality. The menu is huge, but there are only a few things done really well. I’ve given the place several chances, allowing them to work out the kinks during the first couple of weeks, but I’m still not terribly impressed.

Initially the menu seems overwhelming, but it boils down to many combinations of a few proteins and various toppings. Decide whether you want steak, chicken, chorizo, pork, shrimp or vegetables, and then choose between a quesadilla, taco, torta or huarache, a Mexican flatbread. The toppings differ slightly, but you’ll find a rotating combination of mushrooms, black beans, Cotija cheese, avocado and roasted peppers adorning each dish.

The chipotle shrimp is the most flavorful of the tacos, filled with super plump shrimp, avocado and roasted poblano peppers and onions and topped with fresh wild arugula and a bit of lime. Chorizo and cochinita pibil tacos were one-dimensional in comparison. I’m glad they’re using corn instead of flour tortillas, but the wrappings did not taste particularly fresh on any of my visits.

The huaraches are a little messier to eat. The grilled steak version with garlicky mushrooms, Chihuahua cheese and a layer of black beans is worth the trouble, though. The soups and tortas are OK, but none too memorable.

If you’re looking for a lighter option, the salads are a great bet. Just try to cobble together a salad that’s tastier than the chipotle chicken and roasted vegetable one with creamy goat cheese at the salad bar next door. You can’t.

Although the guacamole and salsas are satisfactory, the tortilla chips can’t hold a candle to the freshness and warmth of the complimentary ones served at Nuevo Leon in Pilsen. An unfair comparison, I know. But it’s one I can’t help but make.

My favorite item on the menu is, unexpectedly, the sweet corn and green chile tamale. I feel like I’m unwrapping a Christmas present when I lift the corn husk and dig into the light ricotta, juicy kernels of corn, chiles and creamy goat cheese.

The soft-serve bar is a new concept for Frontera Fresco, and the Norris location is a guinea pig. Skip the Mexican chocolate, which isn’t particularly chocolate-y, for the vegan horchata flavor made with coconut milk. Toppings cost 50 cents each if you’re making your own sundae, but you only receive about a teaspoon.

Is Frontera Fresco better than the Sbarro and Jamba Juice it replaced? Most definitely. The Crepe Bistro might be a point of contention, though.

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