Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Xoco by Rick Bayless in Chicago

An Abundance of Bold Mexican Street Food
449 N. Clark St. (at Illinois), Chicago
River North
PH: 314.334.3688
Open Tuesday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (till 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday); closed Sunday and Monday
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

One the major celebrity chefs from Chicago is Rick Bayless -- master chef, feeder to the Obamas, and major re-definer of Mexican cuisine in the United States. In this city alone, he owns and runs four major restaurants running the gamut of formats from the fine-dining Topolobampo to the casual Frontera Grill.

But when my co-workers and I went looking for lunch, we decided to try the newest spot to the Bayless family, and that's Xoco, a fast-casual restaurant emphasizing the street foods of Mexico.

As you can imagine, the place is extremely popular for lunch with the district's workers. We arrived a bit before noon and there was a long line going down the equally long corridor of Xoco. And there were several lines: one for takeout, another for dining in, and I think another for phone pick ups. It all seemed very confusing, but this one hostess did a really good job of keeping everyone in the right line and keeping things moving.

The long line gave us a good opportunity to study the menu, which really seemed extensive. It's as if Bayless wanted to recreate every single possible food item you'd find on the streets of Mexico. I've never been that excited about Mexican food because of the lack of variety beyond burritos and tacos, but Xoco definitely proved me wrong.

When we finally ordered and sat down and waited for our food, my co-worker Chen started us off with a treat, some freshly made churros ($3.75 for three). Because I don't eat a lot of deep-fried foods, I passed on trying these, but don't they look creative as a twist? I typically see churros as just long sticks.

Side note: Xoco also offers a nice choice of drinks, including house-made agua fresca and hot chocolate drinks. I ended up getting the special for the day, an iced chocolate drink that was like a liquid Fudgesicle.

Chen and another co-worker, Alyssa, actually ordered the same dish (that happened a lot during our eating adventures, we all seemed to have the same cravings), which was from the "Meal-in-the-bowl" section of the menu known as "caldos." They both got the carnitas bowl ($11.50), which actually looked like a hearty soup.

Along with the pork carnitas, the bowl included potato-masa dumplings, chayote, roasted serrano chile, greens, arugula and avocado. Both Chen and Alyssa enjoyed their soup, especially the dumplings.

My other co-worker, Nicole, wanted to order the same thing but she did break out on her own and got the salad version of the same dish. The Xoco Salad with carnitas ($9) looked like a towering dish with the grilled onions and tortilla threads. This was also a winner in flavor, and healthy looking too.

I ordered from the tortas section (sandwiches) but got the daily special, which was aptly named the "Top Chef Torta" ($11.50). The main ingredients of the Top Chef torta were braised beef tongue and chorizo. Oh baby!

The sandwich was nicely toasted, like how any good torta should be. But the bread itself was a bit difficult to eat. Still, that's just a minor quibble when you're embraced by the flavors of chorizo and the distinct offal-ness of the beef tongue bits. The sandwich is taken to another level when I added the salsa verde, an extremely bright rendition that added some zing.

Xoco is definitely a reflection of a high-caliber, Top Chef Master Chef, and it's easy to understand the long lines. Our wait actually didn't feel that long (maybe because when from out of town you don't feel rushed) but I feel the food here is just so good I wouldn't mind the wait. And when the weather's nice, I would suggest hanging out outside when you can really experience Bayless' street food the way it's originally intended.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Mexican delights)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

XOCO on Urbanspoon


Carolyn Jung said...

The sammy looks to die for. And a good sandwich is not often easy to find.

Mrs. L said...

I'd love to go to a Rick Bayless restaurant. I met him many years ago at an event and ended up buying several of his cookbooks (and have loved everything I've made!). I've been trying to get my husband to go to Chicago...I think I need to show him all your posts!

foodhoe said...

woohoo! that sounds like a great spot, too bad his Frontera Fresca isn't up to par... everything looks wonderful, especially that sandwich.

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, I agree. I don't know why the Macy's outpost in SF can't be as exciting. I think the difference I felt was the variety on the menu. Not just what's offered, but the ingredients. It's more creative at Xoco, while Frontera Fresca at Macy's seems more mainstream. I'm sure he wouldn't serve beef tongue at Macy's.

Claudine said...

Any one of Rick's restaurants is also on the neverending list of places to eat at- glad you managed to get to Xoco - looks like you were able to get a table fairly easily - even during the lunch rush?

Single Guy Ben said...

Claudine, I think a lot of people took their food to go, but since we had the time we got a table. It wasn't that long of a wait (and we were a party of four). He has a nicer dining area than Frontera Fresca in Macy's here in SF. Also, lots of people like to eat outside too.