You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myAJC.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myAJC.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myAJC.com.

breaking news

Trump inaugural parade to begin soon

At Leña Brava in Chicago, Rick Bayless sings song of Baja


Nearly 30 years ago, when north-of-the-border Mexican food was more Tex than Mex, Rick Bayless opened Frontera Grill in Chicago, introducing many diners to Oaxacan mole and Yucatecan pork. At his latest Chicago restaurant, Leña Brava, the chef aims to showcase a relatively unsung region of Mexico — the state of Baja California in the northern Baja Peninsula, where the food roots are shallower but innovation is exploding.

“I’m always trying to take people on to the next step, and this is an emerging cuisine,” Bayless said, extolling the region’s unique Mediterranean climate, which nurtures wineries and olive orchards. Baja food, he added, also reflects waves of Chinese, Russian and Italian immigrants and benefits from a high-quality supply of seafood from Ensenada.

The region’s culture might be unfamiliar, but the menu at Leña Brava (which means “ferocious wood”) mirrors a clutch of contemporary food trends — some of them actually not uncommon in traditional Mexican culinary tradition — like raw fish, live-fire cooking and smoky mezcal cocktails.

The “Ice” half of the menu lists cold fish dishes including, of course, ceviche, but also lighter aguachiles, raw fish flash-doused in a chile-citrus bath to bright effect. Generous sashimi-like slices of kampachi or yellowtail known as laminados reflect the influence of Ensenada’s Japanese fishermen.

Main and side dishes, clustered on the “Fire” half of the menu, issue from seven wood fires flaming in a 22-foot hearth along the back wall of the bustling corner storefront, where cook-watching is part of the show. Again, seafood stands out: simple roasted whole bass, tangy slow-cooked octopus carnitas and juicy roast chicken, infused with campfire aromas.

In boozy harmony with the wood-fired foods, smoky mezcal dominates the cocktail menu. The wine list offers opportunities to explore the unconventional blends from the region’s Guadalupe Valley, which the chef calls “the Napa Valley of Mexico, only rustic.” A few taps rotate crisp Cruz Blanca beers from Bayless’ new Alsatian-Mexican craft brewery next door.

Getting into the thronged Leña Brava, which opened in May, requires reserving months in advance or patiently lining up. Although I’ve done both, the latter practice produced my favorite perch, a stool at the seafood bar overlooking the chopping, stirring and tweezering chefs preparing aguachiles and laminados.

Those seafood starters come with crunchy, wood-toasted crackers, not tortilla chips. “No one in Mexico eats chips and salsa,” Bayless said with a sigh.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Travel

Top 10 cool stays for 2017: A bucket-list of lodging
Top 10 cool stays for 2017: A bucket-list of lodging

I love coolstays.com. They’re a great resource for, well, cool stays — unusual, or at least not your average hotel accommodations. That would include anything from dude ranches to treehouses.  They’ve just put together a bucket list Top 10 for 2017. If you decide to book one of these places, consider bringing along a medium-size...
Airlines increase on-time arrivals, reduce canceled flights
Airlines increase on-time arrivals, reduce canceled flights

The chances that your flight will be on time and won't get canceled appear to be looking up.  The federal Department of Transportation reported Tuesday that 86.5 percent of U.S. flights in November arrived on time, an improvement over both the previous month and November 2015.   Less than one-third of 1 percent of domestic flights on...
American mimics United with fare barring use of overhead bin

American Airlines followed United Continental in announcing no-frills tickets that limit carry-on bags to those that fit under a seat, bolstering efforts to compete with fast-growing fare discounters.  The new basic-economy tickets will go on sale Feb. 10 in select domestic markets, and the first flights will begin soon after, the Fort Worth,...
How to use a novel as a guidebook

I like bookstores that shelve fiction, nonfiction and travel guides together by destination.  But can you use a novel as a guidebook? Certainly tourists flock to fictional locations like platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station. But what can you learn from following the footsteps of a fictional character? To see, I followed the route of Oliver...
Why the Cook Islands are the best South Pacific bargain
Why the Cook Islands are the best South Pacific bargain

“So how’s your day going?” asked the post office lady as I bought some colorful Cook Islands postage stamps (I’m very analog and love sending post cards on my travels rather than posting to Facebook).  Funny thing was, the way she asked I had a feeling that she would have lent an ear were I interested in sharing the details...
More Stories