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Tortas Frontera Brings Xoco Flavors to O'Hare

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Jan 21, 2011 8:00PM

Luck and last-minute travel plans collaborated this week to land us at O'Hare airport's Terminal 1, mano-a-mano with Tortas Frontera, the brand new sandwich shop and bar by Chef Rick Bayless. Fresh off a meal-less flight and sporting a withering lunchtime hunger, we lined up to try one of the tempting tortas.

For Xoco veterans, the Tortas Frontera menu will be a familiar read: the eponymous tortas, open-faced mollete sandwiches, corn-and-poblano chowder, tortilla soup and a slew of chip-salsa-guac options are available. For those long, socked-in layovers, you can also get hand-shaken margaritas, Goose Island Matilda or Marisol, Frontera's proprietary Goose brew.

We opted for the pepito torta and a mango-lime juice. Tortas can take about 10 minutes to prepare, but your patience is handsomely rewarded. Our pepito torta - generously stuffed with beer-braised short ribs, arugula, pickled jalapeno and other goodies - was a airport-dining revelation. The roll (courtesy of Labriola Baking Company, we gathered) was crusty and fresh, the braised beef was tender, lean and juicy, and the pickled jalapenos were bright and tangy. Our lunch mates were likewise impressed with the garlic-mushroom torta (no doubt based on Xoco's woodland mushroom version) and the tortilla soup. Our mango-lime juice, although super-tart, made the ideal foil to the rich, spicy pepito. Within minutes, everything was gone.

Given the similar menu and stellar food - after just a few days of operation, no less - the comparison of Tortas Frontera to Xoco is an apt one. (A staffer in a Xoco chef jacket was present, in fact, watching over the scene.) By contrast, Tortas Frontera abuts a McDonald's, creating several striking juxtapositions, from differences in menu presentation to basic layout. For instance, TF proudly lists the farms and local producers where ingredients are sourced; McDonald's does not. Prep stations at TF face out, so diners can plainly see what's going into their tortas; McDonald's has a back for that. And TF features compostable cups, packaging and utensils; McDonald's...who knows.

Which is a long way of saying that Tortas Frontera is a welcome arrival to O'Hare's dining spread. With another outpost coming soon to Terminal 3, we are starting to feel that long-lost excitement to fly again.