There are those who salivate in breathless anticipation at the thought of driving down the interstate to dine at any one of the celebrity-chef-driven restaurants at Disney Springs, and then there are those who would rather take a punch to the throat than deal with the theater of Disneyana. For the former, the lure of a Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning chef – like Rick Bayless of this week's featured resto, Frontera Cocina – is incentive enough. For the latter, disenchanted by dumbed-down cuisine tabled by absentee celebrity chefs, such news will likely be met with a dismissive scoff. But even the inveterate seeker of all things authentic should be impressed by Bayless's dedication and commitment to Mexican cuisine over the last 40 years. I mean, the man's got Mexican street cred AND he's won Mexico's highest order for foreigners – the Order of the Aztec. So even if he's rarely present inside Frontera's cocina, his capable cooks and chefs should churn out some bangin' dishes through osmosis alone. And they do.
That said, any notions of serving really progressive Mexican fare are sacrificed for the sake of the vacationing family. Topolobampo or Frontera Grill (Bayless' flagship Chicago restaurants) this is not, but damn if Bayless's tortilla soup ($9), with its red-chile chicken broth, wasn't the best I've had in years, and a tableside pour to boot. A trio of gratifying tostadas ($12) heaped with garlicky grilled zucchini, pea shoots and frisée, and weighted with creamy black beans, goat cheese and strips of poblano rajas, was gone in a matter of seconds, even after being daubed with a habañero hot sauce that combusted in our collective esophagi. We refused the palliative pull of a $15 margarita and gritted it out until the torta ($15), exalted with a filling of cochinita pibil, arrived. If pastrami on rye is the king of sandwiches, this beaut of a Mexican hoagie, fattened with slow-cooked achiote pork shoulder, black beans and pickled red onions, is the king's treacherous consort.
Oaxacan red-chile chicken is a pricey $27 for a half-chicken in a slather of red mole – a wonderful red mole, I'll admit – served with a relatively meager amount of plantain rice. It comes served over a pretty banana leaf, itself served on pretty Steelite tableware, but it's only after we'd scarfed the chicken down that we realize the promised warm corn tortillas never materialized. It was a small oversight from our otherwise capable server – who, I should note, helped facilitate our move to the patio, out of sight of backpacked junketeers, mouse-eared kiddos and the colorful modern dissonance of Frontera's interior design.
There, in full view of Morimoto Asia's hulking presence, we relished a simple dessert of fried plantains ($9) with "Mexican" vanilla ice cream, drizzled with cajeta (a syrup of caramelized goat's milk) and sprinkled with pecans. Cuatro leches ($9) wasn't exactly spongy, but the use of lime zest in this milky cake was flavor suicide.
As we headed out of the restaurant, we came across a takeout window offering tacos and, more importantly, margaritas for a mere $8.95. When I asked if there was any difference in size between theirs and the $15 jobs served inside, the guy coyly shrugged and skirted the question. Funnily enough, a couple of days later when a friend asked me if it was worth making the drive to give Frontera Cocina a try, I had the same reaction.