When people talk about Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, it’s generally to complain. Not without reason: ORD always lands a prominent spot on lists of the nation’s worst airports, mostly due to the delays that ensare the world’s sixth-busiest airport during inclement weather. Yet for all of its failings, O’Hare boasts something no other airport in the world can: Tortas Frontera.
Tortas Frontera is a restaurant that has crossed a certain psychic threshold, even amongst the most cynical foodie. Like taking a photo of your outstretched hands “balancing” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, there’s a tradition of posting Instagram photos of the Mexican-inspired sandwiches found at Tortas Frontera, located in three separate terminals of O’Hare airport. They do it because, well, it’s objectively more delicious than any other options nearby.
The brainchild of Chicago chef Rick Bayless (who starred in The Takeout’s Good Gravy! series), Tortas Frontera was named by Condé Nast Traveler “the best airport restaurant in the U.S.” It is a welcome oasis from the typical airport fare such as McDonald’s, Manchu Wok, and Burrito Beach, all of which can be found across the hall from Frontera’s terminal three location.
But Burrito Beach’s bottom-rung namesake doesn’t take long to make, whereas Frontera’s tortas take about 10 minutes. Cashiers offer that caveat before taking every order, but the real problem lies in the wait before the wait—the frequently long-ass line to order. And therein lies the rub: It might take a good 20 minutes from stepping in line to receiving the food, and no one arrives at the airport to leisurely wait around. Food feels more special when it’s harder to procure, which is why Tortas Frontera’s already-delicious sandwiches, soups, and guacamole has been exalted to mythic status.
But as a seasoned O’Hare traveler, I have discovered upon a secret which, I was surprised to learn, few of my colleagues know about. There is an app in the iOS store specifically created for ordering ahead from Tortas Frontera (terminals one and three only). For frequent-flying epicures like myself, this app is—I say with no hyberbole—a life-changer. I have it down to a science: I make my order in the cab ride over (usually around the time it pulls into I-190), and by the time I pass the TSA, there’s a choriqueso and tortilla soup waiting for me. I laugh at all the suckers waiting for their electronic pagers to buzz.
The app offers almost the full menu: guacamole bar, molletes, soups and salads, sides, and beverages. About that last one: Drinks aren’t waiting with your food, so if you ordered an agua fresca (the lime one rules) or something else, the staff directs you to ask the cashier for it. Prepare to get the stink eye from people waiting in the slowly moving line, who may think you’re pulling some shenanigans. Also, you can’t order Frontera’s margaritas or alcohol from the app, but the wait at the bar is usually minimal.