There isn’t anything remotely Mexican about the decor and design of Frontera Cocina, the new restaurant from Rick Bayless that has opened at Disney Springs. And that just may be the point.
Bayless, the Chicagoland chef who has won no fewer than six James Beard Awards, says his style of Mexican food has “bright flavors” and isn’t heavy because they don’t do much frying. His menu focuses on the Central and Southern regions of Mexico, staying far away from the influences of Tex-Mex or Ameri-Mex, or, heaven forbid, Flori-Mex.
That brightness shows in the decor, as well. More modern, with bright splashes of color — orange, blue and green — walls of windows and shelves of tequilas. No artificially cracked plaster walls showing bare bricks beneath and nary a sombrero hanging on a hook. That alone is refreshing.
Bayless expanded his culinary empire — or frontier, to use one of the translations of the word — from his wildly popular Frontera Grill, which, like all of his other restaurants, is in or around Chicago. (The flagship restaurant is on Clark Street.)
Besides being the first Bayless restaurant in Florida, the Disney Springs location is the first, and only, Frontera Cocina. That may be, in part, because the restaurant is a partnership with the San Angel Group, which also operates the restaurants at the Mexico pavilion in Epcot.
You won’t find a burrito or nacho platter on the menu, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something familiar. The food I sampled on two visits, including one as part of a media tour of a few new DS venues, was good, so whatever you choose is bound to be enjoyable.
On one visit, my guest and I started with the Queso Fundido, which had Chihuahua cheese blended with roasted poblanos and caramelized onions all melted together. It was served with a napkin of hot corn tortillas. It was a race to scoop some of the thick cheese mix onto a torn tortilla before it could harden into a solid mass. (We won.) By the way, the cheese is named for the Mexican state of Chihuahua and has nothing to do with little doggies.
I chose the Red Chile Chicken Enchilada for an entree. The tortillas — carefully mentioned on the menu as “just-made” — held a filling of chipotle seasoned shredded chicken with guajillo sauce and melted cheese, topped with a frizzle of fried onions. The quajillo chilies, which were blended with roasted tomatoes to make the sauce, had wonderful depth of seasoning, not overly hot but easily identified as something from the chile family.
My guest had the Cochinita Pibil Torta, a Mexican sandwich of slow-cooked pork shoulder seasoned with achiote, which leant a pleasant earthiness. A small dish of salsa verde was provided for dipping or drizzling (I prefer to dip), and a salad of baby lettuces with avocado-lime vinaigrette and sprinkled with crumbles of Cotija cheese accompanied.
Instead of a beer as my dinner beverage (frankly, the beer list isn’t very impressive) I had the Cocina Gin & Tonic, made with Hendricks gin and St. Germain elderflower liqueur, garnishes with a long, thin strip of cucumber. Ordinarily I don’t like cukes in my drinks, but this was quite refreshing.
Service was attentive and thorough, though it really wasn’t necessary for both the host and the server to ask if we had any food allergies. I’m of the school that if someone has a food allergy it’s up to him or her to let the server know. (The only time it’s appropriate for a restaurant to ask about allergies is if it offers an amuse bouche or presents a tasting menu that doesn’t specify what will be served.)
You should also know that there are high ceilings and plenty of hard surfaces for sound to reverberate upon. (That means it’s noisy.)
Bayless was in attendance for the media preview (see video), but don’t expect to find him there often. That’s fine, his food is a find stand in.
Frontera Cocina is at Disney Springs. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-590-9197.