Rio Chama Steakhouse – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Entrance to the Rio Chama Steakhouse

The murky Rio Chama meanders through the high plateaus of northwestern New Mexico surrounded by multi-colored sandstone cliffs reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s landscape paintings in which colors seem to defy nature. The ambiance at the Rio Chama Steakhouse is of muted earth tones and subdued Southwestern patinas. Exquisite elegance is in evidence throughout the restaurant as this truly fine dining establishment exudes class and wealth.

Serving prime and choice dry aged steaks, chops and seafood, this high-end and classy establishment has garnered accolades since its inception–Cocinita Magazine’s Critics’ Choice Award in 2001 and the Santa Fe Reporter Readers’ Choice award for best new restaurant in 2001 and 2002. It is the sister restaurant to Santa Fe restaurants La Casa Sena and the Blue Corn Cafe as well as Albuquerque’s Chama River Brewing Company, all properties of Santa Fe Dining, the restaurant company owned by Santa Fe art dealer and developer Gerald Peters.

We don’t always concur with pundits and their salivating effusion, but after our inaugural visit to the Rio Chama Steakhouse, we began to evangelize on its behalf with the passion of a fiery preacher. Subsequent visits have proven this isn’t a “one hit wonder.”

An excellent lunch, brunch or dinner starter choice are the roundhouse rings, five lightly breaded jumbo onion rings “cut bigger than they out to be” and served with dueling dipping sauces of chipotle catsup and horseradish mayonnaise. These are a perfect prelude to how great the rest of the meal will be. If house salads be your choice, ask for the blue cheese vinaigrette dressing that you’ll rave about for days.

Rio Chama’s full rack of slow-cooked pork baby back ribs glazed with a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce is easily among the best rack of ribs I’ve had in New Mexico. They are off-the-bone tender, finger-licking delicious and absolutely succulent. Meatatarians will also love the perfectly seasoned steak asada, a filet of prime sirloin dusted with a slightly piquant rub. It is an amalgam of flavors with juiciness expertly sealed in.

For dessert share a “chocolate pot” with someone you love. This light chocolate soufflé is served warm and accompanied by vanilla cream. It’s a dessert that’s beyond decadent, beyond delicious…maybe even sublime.

Sunday brunch is also a not-to-be-missed event at Rio Chama. A seven ounce version of the steak asada is available with cubed potatoes and eggs any way you like them. A more eye-opening and unexpected brunch surprise were the red chile chicken enchiladas. In northern New Mexico, you’ll find few better (only El Bruno comes to mind) thanks to a perfectly piquant rich red chile and a tortilla adorned with sharp cheddar cheese enveloping perfect poultry portions (if I’m using the adjective “perfect” too often, it’s warranted). The enchiladas were accompanied by some of the best restaurant made pinto beans we’ve had in a while. The beans were flavored with bacon and miniscule bits of green chile.

Rio Chama Steakhouse
414 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 31 July 2005
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Steak Asada

Topolobampo – Chicago, Illinois

A quote attributed to Marcel Marceau, the French mime famous for his sad-faced clown, aptly describes my attempts at describing a meal at Topolobampo: “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words.” Life’s vicissitudes often include moments which move you deeply and stir your very soul. Our inaugural dining experience at Topolobampo was not so profound and cathartic as to move us to drastically change our lives, but it certainly prompted a stirring awakening as we experienced what was conceivably the best restaurant meal we’ve ever had. Perhaps more impressively, a second visit affirmed that opinion with an equally stunning array of unsurpassed delights.

Several of the other effusive reviews I’ve written are mere hyperbole in comparison to what I’d like to say about Topolobampo if I was skilled enough to do so. Topolobampo is simply the best restaurant in which we’ve dined, so far superior to other restaurants I previously thought were outstanding that I scaled down my ratings for many of them.

The sister restaurant of Frontera Grill, “Topolo” shares its front door and bar with its sibling, but is even more classy and elegant, more than a notch above. On the day we first visited, chef nonpareil Rick Bayless and 30 members of his staff had just returned from an extended culinary excursion in Mexico City where they imbibed culture and culled secrets of Mexico City’s cuisine. Annual pilgrimages to Mexico’s regions continue to inspire his creativity with Oaxaca, the “land of the seven moles” being a favorite.

We were fortunate enough during our inaugural visit to meet Bayless who is as humble and gracious as the Mexican people he loves. From his modest demeanor you might never suspect he has been a multiple time James Beard award winner. It’s in partaking of his culinary creations that you quickly determine he is a gifted and special chef. Topolo has been listed among America’s top 50 restaurants by Condé Nast Traveler and a Playboy restaurant survey placed it among the country’s top 25 restaurants.

Bayless also stopped at our table during our second visit. When he inquired as to my heavily bandaged hand, I replied that I had incurred carpal tunnel from the nasty letter I wrote to the Iron Chef judges who indicated Bobby Flay’s cuisine reigned supreme during their mano a mano competition in 2004. Bayless smiled broadly, steepled his hands together as in prayer and bowed–acknowledgement of my compliment.

Like Frontera Grill, Topolobampo is unlike any stereotypical Mexican restaurant you’ve ever visited. It is electrical in its energy, edgy in its ambience, boisterous in its rhythm and vibrant in its delivery. It’s like an eye-opening, invigorating sensory overload for all your senses. The fragrance of bold spices; the multi-hued walls festooned with festive art; the bold, complex yet refined tastes of fresh, organic ingredients–dining at Topolobampo is like a religious conversion! Every bite is an adventure in unbridled joy. Every appetizer, entree and dessert will make rapturous love to your taste buds, titillating and teasing them with sensations you might never before have experienced.

Topolo’s salads are fabulous–masterpieces deserving of the same rapt attention as a Picasso. A tasting plate called Ensaladas Surtidas is comprised of three salads: crunchy shredded chayote salad with smoky pasilla chile; grilled shitake-cactus salad with poblanos and lime; and roasted vegetable “ensalada rusa” with homemade chipotle mayonnaise. Every fantastic forkful will lavish taste wonders that will enliven your tongue.

Amazing appetizers provide a precursory experience that would be the highlight of a meal anywhere else. Exemplary empanadas de chivo (flaky turnovers filled with red chile braised Swan Creek farm goat birria and served with toasted guajillo dipping sauce and baby greens) surfaced the tastes that make goat a much underappreciated meat. Better still are the Mejillones Ahumados con Chile Pasado which are house-smoked Prince Edward Island mussels with luscious lobster broth infused with chile pasado. These marvelous mollusks are better than you’ll find at any seafood restaurant.

Exceptional entrees follow the sensational salads and artful appetizers. Puerco en Mole Verde de Chabacano feature a serrano and garlic-marinated Maple Creek farm pork loin with Querataro-style green mole (sesame seeds, almonds, peanuts, poblanos, plantains and spices) with sweet corn tamal, poblanos rajas and sugar snap peas. Complementary and contrasting taste sensations made this beautifully presented plate a thrill to look at and a delight to consume.

A sampler of Oaxacan delights called Cuatro Cositas Oaxaquenas featured rustic empanadas filled with chicken, yellow mole and hoja santa; grilled Oaxacan chorizo; roasted cactus salad with lime and green chile; and grill-roasted Maple Creek Farm pork loin with red mole. Although I had previously experienced versions of each of the four samplers, the Topolo version was like experiencing them for the first time and certainly, for the best time.

Pato con Lantejas (literally duck with lentils) masterfully melds seemingly contrasting ingredients to form a concordant, taste bud sating entree like no other. Adobo-marinated, pan-roasted Gunthorp duck breast is paired with an ancho chile-lentil braise, jicama-dried cherry salsa (infused with smoky morita chiles) and a garlicky Snug Haven spinach. The duck was virtually fat-free while the cherry salsa and lentils both competed and joined together in competition for your rapt attention.

Desserts are decadent celebrations of Mexican sweet-tooth tantalizing treats. The pastelito de Chocolate Oaxaqueno–a warm, moist dark chocolate “brownie” studded with Oaxacan chocolate and pine nuts with orange zest ice cream (perfumed with anise hyssop and Yucatecan Xtabentum honey liqueur) and bittersweet chocolate sauce–played a blissful symphony on our taste buds. Equally formidable was the Tartaleta de Mango, a mango-brown butter tart topped with crunchy cinnamon streusel; served with mango-chamomile ice cream and crimson prickly pear sauce.

Rick Bayless’s creations punctuate with emphasis that Mexico is indeed home to one of the world’s great cuisines. The country’s remarkably diverse range of styles has found a home in Chicago and has my undying devotion. Topolobampo’s incomparable fare may not be relatable to Mexican food you’ve had previously, but it will be the basis of comparison with every Mexican restaurant at which you’ll dine in the future. It is simply the best!

445 North Clark
Chicago, IL
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 7 July 2005
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Ensaladas Surtidas; Puerco en Mole Verde de Chabacano; Cuatro Cositas Oaxaquenas; Pastelito de Chocolate Oaxaqueno

Bob Chinn’s Crab House – Wheeling, Illinois

Over 900,000 customers in 1999 couldn’t be wrong when they spent over $28M, the third largest revenue for the year among independent (non-chain) restaurants at Bob Chinn’s Crab House in land-locked Wheeling, Illinois. In 2004, Bob Chinn’s was fifth in revenue among America’s independents.

Fresh seafood flown in daily to a capacious restaurant is the reason why. Turn-away throngs of patrons line up to order their favorite fish feast from a fabulous menu. Many indulge on one of the shrimp lovers choices, all of which are perfectly seasoned (or sweetened as in the case of the wonderful coconut shrimp) with a generous amount of right-sized, de-veined, peel and eat shrimp. You can have your shrimp hot and spicy or bathed in enough garlic to ward off the blood lust of even the most heinous vampire. In fact, if you’re a garlic aficionado, this is the restaurant for you.

Bob Chinn’s garlic rolls are the best in America and the main reason we terminated our Adkins Diet during a visit in 2000. Those garlic rolls are dripping in butter and caked with garlic. An appetizer sided platter of New Zealand green lip mussels features the biggest mussels we’ve ever had. Naturally, we opted to have them served with garlic instead of over pasta or with Italian red sauce. Another excellent garlic bathed appetizer is the edamame (green soybeans typically served in Japanese restaurants as an appetizer) for which Americans are starting to gain a greater appreciation.

Seafood choices from the deep fryer include beer battered fried fish, oysters, scallops or a combination of the three. The oysters are humongous and as fresh tasting as if they’d been caught off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The scallops are succulent and sweet pearls that swim in your mouth and titillate your taste buds. Salads are garden fresh and the blue cheese dressing worthy of commendation. The clam chowder is as comparable as can be in Illinois to that served in the Boston area, meaning it is savory, rich and absolutely delicious.

Bob Chinn’s Crab House
3993 S. Milwaukee Avenue
Wheeling, IL
(847) 520-3633
LATEST VISIT: 2 July 2005
BEST BET: Shrimp, Garlic Rolls, Fried Oysters, Green Lip Mussels