Credit: Nick Murway

We don’t do family meal because I don’t believe in family meal very often,” Rick Bayless says to me at Frontera Grill as, behind him, four cooks dig into a platter of tacos and the hostess pulls up a gooey length of queso fundido. “A lot of restaurants do family meal, and because of the nature of the restaurant business it kind of gets pushed off to the side and it ends up being a slapdash thing. I don’t feel like it shows the kitchen staff, the front-of-house staff what we really feel about them.”

So instead of seating 60 staffers at the same time for a buffet meal, Frontera lets them sit down a few at a time between lunch and dinner service and order what they like off the restaurant’s regular menu.

“I grew up in a family restaurant where we ate the same food that our guests ate every day,” Bayless says. “Sometimes at certain times of the year someone will make something” and the whole staff will sit down together for a meal. “But then it’s special, celebratory. It’s always something someone’s proud of.”

There are a few rules to dining a la carte as a Frontera staff member. The staples of Mexican food—beans, cheese, tortillas—are always available. Pricier proteins like carne asada may or may not be offered, but can be used as rewards for team members who excel. New menu items are frequently put out for everyone to try. And front-of-house staff, who need to know what they’re selling to diners (and, as Bayless observes, “are in a different economic category” from cooks), can order the more expensive items at 50 percent off the menu price. “You’ll often see a group of servers sharing a plate like that,” he says.

The nature of the business, though, can make it hard even to find those few minutes to sit and eat. That’s where an all-purpose off-menu item comes in: the Emergency Taco. This being Rick Bayless’s world, even utilitarian food is at an artisanal level: “It’s a fresh-made corn tortilla from heirloom masa that we bring in from Oaxaca, smeared with these gorgeous black beans from Three Sisters [farm in Kankakee, Illinois,] that we cook with fresh rendered pork lard and epazote. Then you put a spoonful of guacamole and a little bit of the house cheese on it. And that is honest-to-God one of the best things on the planet.

“We call it the Emergency Taco because you’re really busy, and you’re starving, and all of those things are always ready and warm in this restaurant,” Bayless continues. “So you stop for a minute, and you make your perfect Emergency Taco. I think it’s one of the reasons for the longevity of our staff.”  v

Rick Bayless eats his Emergency Tacos one plate at a time.Credit: Nick Murway
Credit: Nick Murway

Emergency Tacos

Corn tortillas (Rick Bayless recommends the Chicago brands El Milagro or El Popocatepetl)
Charro beans
Queso fresco

Warm tortillas in package in the microwave, or briefly in a skillet. Fill warm tortilla with charro beans and guacamole, then sprinkle cheese on top. Repeat as needed until emergency hunger passes.

Charro beans

4 slices (4 oz) thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into half-inch pieces
1 medium white onion, cut into half-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 jalapeños, seeded if you wish and cut into quarter-inch pieces
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire roasted)
1 lb (about 2 1/2 cups) dried pinto beans, rinsed
Salt to taste
1 c loosely packed, roughly chopped cilantro

In a Dutch oven over medium heat, cook the bacon several minutes, stirring regularly, until bacon starts to brown and renders its fat. Add the onion and cook until golden, about six to eight minutes. Add garlic and jalapeños and cook until the garlic begins to brown and is fragrant, about one minute. Stir in the tomatoes and cook another minute.

Add the beans, salt, and 2 1/2 quarts water. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce to medium low and cook the beans at a gentle simmer, partially covered, until thoroughly tender, about two hours. (You’ll find it necessary to add water from time to time to ensure that the level of liquid remains about the same.)

When ready to serve, remove two cups of the beans and process in a blender or food processor until smooth. Add the smooth beans back to pot and stir in the cilantro. Taste and season with more salt if needed.

Credit: Nick Murway
Credit: Nick Murway