It was a mere five years ago or so when my son Sam and I flipped through the TV channels and wound up tuning into PBS, where we became entranced with an enthusiastic geeky guy singing the praises of Mexican cuisine. Rick Bayless’s One Plate at a Time had us at “cochinita pibil,” whatever the hell that was. It hardly mattered. It was his passion that roped us in, infectious and encouraging, and like foot soldiers of an oddly ebullient military commander, we were ready to go wherever he led us.
Except to his flagship restaurant, apparently. Yes, about four years ago my wife and I managed to make it down to Chicago for a brunch at Frontera Grill, and twice now in the last year we’ve purchased Cubano sandwiches at Bayless’s O’Hare location, Tortas Frontera. But we’d never been to the Granddaddy of the Bayless franchise, the upscale Topolobampo, so when my son had one request for this 16th birthday – dining at Topolobampo (the name of which I didn’t master until Saturday as we were driving into Chicago) – we decided to take the plunge.
It helped that we were a group of four instead of our usual family of five, because I’m not used to spending bookoo bucks on dining experiences. I’m simply not wired that way. Hell, my personal wine chart with a y-axis representing the price of a bottle of wine and an x-axis representing my happiness results in a straight vertical line. I like it all. When I “splurge” on a Wednesday afternoon and decide to get a lunch at Chipotle for nine dollars, I’m happy as a clam downing my sofritas, black beans and brown rice. Lovely. Until Saturday night, I believe the most I ever spent on a dinner was somewhere around $120 per person, drinks included. On Saturday we exceeded that by a considerable margin.
Our jovial yet subtle John Goodman-like waiter made the pitch for the newly introduced “Winter Beach Vacation” dinner, and all four of us took the bait (see what I did there?), enjoying seven courses ranging from crab taco (like no other taco I’ve ever had) to seared scallops to octopus, all delectable, though my favorite was probably the lobster chilpachole. Our meal was orchestrated perfectly, neither rushed nor tedious, with just enough time to enjoy our dish, let it settle for a bit, and then move on to the next course. Plates were retrieved at the right time, drinks were replenished timely (the house margarita was superb), and all four of us enjoyed a delicious, leisurely dinner in about two and a half hours.
Originally my daughter was supposed to fly up and join us for the weekend, but when she had to back out due to a school requirement, we invited my son’s friend, whose palette has expanded considerably since our camping trip in 2012 when his diet was restricted to…I think bread and Chips Ahoy. His attendance on Saturday night worked out perfectly, because what ever else you can say about Topolobampo, it isn’t obviously friendly to vegetarians; my daughter would have had to have put in a special request, and I’m not sure what the results would have been. Probably wonderful. But something to think about if you’re a veggie looking for fine Mexican dining.
So was it worth it? I’ve written before about how haphazard we humans value things. We’ll drive three blocks further to save a few cents on gas or spend weeks pricing out the best deal on a grill or refrigerator, and then think nothing of shelling out $12 on a martini or $100 plus on a concert ticket. In short, we are inconsistent, and we’re all a bit different on where we’re willing to spend money. For me, the value I get out of watching a good movie for $10 exceeds that of seeing a musical for $125. For others, it’s just the reverse.
An experience at a place like Topolobampo is a once a year or every other year event for me. Mind you, I have three kids in college and a new sewer coming this spring. There may come a time when our disposable income is such that we can enjoy a high-end restaurant more regularly, but I think it has much more to do with my mindset and my upbringing. My German-Lutheran Midwestern roots taught me to watch my wallet and choose carefully, a practice that has served me well in life, but I still pick my spots and manage to spend money on life experiences where appropriate.
Last Saturday was one of them, one plate at a time. Seven of them. And three margaritas. Say it with me: muy beuno.