When it comes to Mexican restaurants, Chicago has it all. We have casual neighborhood spots focusing on regional cuisines. We have family-run BYOB places that are perfect for gathering your crew on a Saturday night. We have clubby restaurants in River North and the West Loop. And yes, we also have restaurants run by Rick Bayless. And restaurants run by people who used to work for Rick Bayless in some capacity. In each of these categories, there are some excellent options, and we’ve done the work of gathering the best of them below.
Of course, Chicago also has excellent grab-and-go taco spots as well, but here, we’re focusing on sit down restaurants.
Ixcateco offers the best of all worlds: it’s a casual place, but there’s nothing casual about the food. The relaxed space has colorful walls and a few pieces of artwork, but the minimal decor is just enough, because it’s all about the food here. The owner/chef worked for Rick Bayless, and he brought those skills to this neighborhood spot - everything from the ceviche to the rotisserie chicken in a rich mole are great. Between the excellent food, low-key environment, and BYOB policy, there’s really nothing not to like about this place.
In keeping with Chicago’s trend of six degrees of separation from Rick Bayless, the chef of this spot’s mother apparently used to be the nanny for Rick Bayless’s children. We didn’t make that up. The restaurant is located on a commercial stretch of Cicero in Cragin, but don’t let that deter you from checking it out - the space is charming with fantastic food and a menu that changes seasonally. You’ll find different regional Mexican specialties like Oaxacan mole and an adobo marinated duck breast. The tequila list is extensive, and the vibe is very friendly. Get here immediately.
At Mi Tocaya in Logan Square, you’ll find some excellent stuff you might not frequently come across, like a really excellent cactus stew, for example. But you can get some very good tacos as well. The excellent food, and bright, lively space make this a great choice for a summer hang, especially if you can get a seat on their patio.
The original New Rebozo is actually a rather large and successful spot in Oak Park, but the River North location feels like a hidden gem, because the small space is below street level, and has no discernable connection to Rick Bayless. The menu is limited, with a focus on mole, and when you’re here that’s what you should order. They have seven different kinds, and all are delicious. Other than that, the margaritas are great, service is friendly, and it’s rarely crowded. It’s a solid alternative to Frontera if you’re downtown and want upscale Mexican food in a casual environment.
5 Rabanitos is a casual restaurant in Pilsen putting out some seriously great Mexican food. It’s affordable, BYOB, and yes, it’s another place owned and operated by someone who worked for Rick Bayless. Despite the the cheesy neon signs in the window, they’re actually pretty big on aesthetics here, and they take the plating nearly as seriously as the cooking. There’s a great selection of tacos and a huge vegetarian menu, and their ahogada torta with carnitas (a carnitas torta served in a spicy chile broth) is so spicy it might induce hallucinations. It’s also one of the best things to eat in Chicago.
This spot has a party vibe, with three full bars and a rooftop deck, and you can expect all of them to be crowded, even on weeknights. Even if you’re not looking for a wild night out, solid classics like enchiladas and exceptional tacos make deciding to come here a good idea. The servers and bartenders are very friendly, and the extensive cocktail menu offers more than pitchers of watered down margaritas. Check it out as a new West Loop option for day drinking, or for a dinner with friends.
This is a restaurant that covers you for all dining situations. Quiote is open for lunch, does brunch on Sunday, and there’s a mezcal bar downstairs if you just feel like getting drinks. The space is intimate, with a menu that has lots of moles, tamales, and tacos, and we love its modern take on Mexican classics: The tostada topped with crab is delicious, and without Quiote we wouldn’t know that bone marrow and salsa go well together. It’s a great neighborhood spot.
This Logan Square spot focuses on elevated Mexican street food, and the trendy space feels more like a bar with great food than a restaurant. Masa Azul makes a smart play: they find their best flavor combinations, like their smoked chicken and chipotle sauce, and then put them all over the place. So the menu seems huge, but it’s basically the same 10 dishes in different disguises. But you won’t mind, because what they do they do very well. It’s a great spot for a casual weeknight meal, or even just for a low-key date night.
Frontera is Chicago’s best-known Mexican restaurant, and for two good reasons: it’s ground zero in the Rick Bayless empire, and the food happens to be great. We’re not crazy about the space, as it’s in River North and can get crowded with tourists, but the high-end yet simple Mexican food is worth it. They serve mostly straightforward dishes like guacamole, tacos, and enchiladas, but everything is done exceptionally well.
Rick Bayless’ West Loop restaurant focuses on the Baja California region of Mexico, and it’s his foray into the trend of restaurant kitchens that revolve around a grill. The menu is split up into “fire” and “ice” section - the former describes entrees cooked on the open flame, while the latter refers to the smaller and more delicate ceviches and other raw fish. This isn’t our favorite of the Bayless spots, but the food is solid, we like the feel of the minimalist space, and the fact that you can see the action happening in the open kitchen. Plan to go heavy on the seafood for the best meal.
While technically a sit-down restaurant, this no frills spot in Wicker Park feels like one folding chair away from being a take-out joint. But this place has incredible Mexican seafood and feels like a constant party. The move here is to order the shellfish: crab, prawns, and the stuffed lobster. They’re going to hit your table looking like a capsized shrimping boat, but just dig in and get messy. The lobster is stuffed with more seafood, mainly octopus, and the prawns come in delicious tomato broth, spicy and served with fries that you should be using to soak up all the sauce. It’s BYOB, great for groups, and perfect for having a good time.