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.