It wasn’t so long ago when “Mexican” food was best represented stateside by a heaping platter of rice and refried beans along with gloopy enchiladas covered in melted cheese, with maybe a couple hard-shell tacos on the side. Thankfully we’ve come a long way, and now the cuisine of just about every region of Mexico is now well-represented in the American culinary landscape. Today, most people realize that the standard menu of burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas, and the like are in fact more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican, and that once you head south of the border there’s a whole world of flavorful (and non-cheesy) possibilities to explore. Additionally, while authenticity is prized, some of the country’s most highly regarded chefs, like former pastry chef Alex Stupak and Oklahoma-born Rick Bayless, have also turned their attention and creativity to Mexican, which has become somewhat of a cuisine célèbre.
To assemble our ranking of America’s 50 Best Mexican Restaurants, we analyzed results from surveys we sent out to some of America’s leading culinary authorities, writers, and critics, used to assemble our rankings of America’s 50 Best Casual Restaurants and the 101 Best Restaurants in America. We supplemented those with best-of lists both in print and online, and rounded it out with our personal favorites from around the country. We also made sure to include restaurants that specialize in authentic Mexican fare; while some Tex-Mex classics on the menu are acceptable if done really well, the main focus had to be on true Mexican cuisine. We found that from José Andrés’ high-end restaurant in Washington, D.C. to a modest taqueria in Mountain View, Calif. serving some of the finest carnitas you’ll ever encounter, America has no shortage of great Mexican restaurants. As it turns out, 6 reside in Chicago—including the very best in the nation.
Since hosting his 26-part PBS series Cooking Mexican in the late ’70s, Oklahoma-born chef Rick Bayless has been a champion of Mexican cuisine in America. He has even won the approval of the Mexican government — in 2012, he was named to the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest distinction awarded to foreigners. At Topolobampo, the slightly fancier and more ambitious next-door cousin of his popular and groundbreaking Frontera Grill, Bayless serves irresistible Mexican fare of a kind not otherwise found outside some of the better restaurants of Mexico itself, if even there. Red snapper in "red ceviche" (cured with crimson hibiscus), frogs' leg tamal with cascabel chile, lamb in ancho-tamarind sauce, and cajeta crêpes with chocolate and plantains are among vividly flavored attractions in this colorful, well-run dining room.
Now, Topolobampo had some stiff local and national competition. Five other Mexican restaurants in The Windy City placed on our compilation, which means that Chicago plays host to 12% of the 50 best Mexican restaurants in the country; they are: Salpicón (#42), La Pasadita (#37), Birrieria Zaragoza (#25), Maxwell Street Market (#22), and Big Star (#9). So, by snagging the very top spot, Bayless is the proud owner of both the best Mexican restaurant in Chicago and the very best in America.