He may not be Mexican or from Mexico, but Rick Bayless has devoted his life to studying Mexico, Mexicans and most especially, Mexican food. He has also parlayed this passion into a very nice career. His restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo have demonstrated to the United States that Mexican food is much more than tacos, burritos and guacamole as wonderful as they are. He has, more than any other person in the United States made it clear that Mexican food is a cuisine as wonderful as any in the world – varied, complex and delicious. He has brought that same sense of purpose to showing that Mexican quick service food is also complex, varied and delicious and that it too, is much more than what is found at Taco Bell or even the local Mexican taqueria. Xoco, which means “younger sister,” is his vehicle for this.
Located around the corner from Frontera Grill/Topolobampo on North Clark Street in Chicago, Xoco is a smartly designed, efficient restaurant serving breakfast through dinner with a menu consisting of tortas, caldos, churros and other specialized Mexican delights. My wife and I arrived early, in the time between they closed from breakfast and they opened for lunch. The line, which had already formed, began moving promptly at 11AM (it was noon for us as we were still on Eastern time). We had been given menus to peruse while we were waiting and a number for our communal table. Once we got to the front, we ordered, collected our drinks and went to our assigned table to wait for our food.
The lunch and dinner menu is divided into tortas (Mexican sandwiches) from the wood-burning oven, tortas from the griddle, “meal-in-a-bowl” caldos, summer seafood cocktails and salads, sides and snacks. In addition to the regular tortas, there is a special torta for each day of the week. Choosing from so many delectable options was not easy, but choose we did.
The first difficult choice was the beverages. There were a number of non-run-of-the-mill options including agua frescas, chocolate drinks and even water which was available from a spout in either still or sparkling…
with a copious supply of lime wedges to provide a touch of citrous.
How could I pass up such a personal touch as a drink incorporating Rick Bayless’ own personally grown mint? I couldn’t, especially when it came with a cold Mexican chocolate beverage. I was glad that I didn’t pass it up. This was gourmet yahoo on steroids. The chocolate itself was rich, dark and full of nuanced flavor, while the spearmint provided a refreshing counterpoint. This would have worked equally well as a simple dessert.
I wouldn’t have been disappointed ordering this agua fresca of jamaica and lemon grass either. My wife wasn’t. This was a perfectly balanced and delicious summer refresher. Other agua frescas looked equally appealing for a scorchingly hot summer day.
It seems that there are a few things that are almost ubiquitous in Mexican restaurants in the United States – chips and salsa and guacamole. Neither are free at Xoco, but they are worth the relatively minor cost. The guacamole, in particular, is rich and flavorful. Despite its ubiquitous availability, guacamole is easy to screw up Xoco’s is very well balanced and has a superb consistency and flavor. The tortilla chips are addictive and the salsas well made and tasty with just enough heat to keep them interesting.
Red or green? Another choice. Xoco’s summer seafood cocktails came two ways. The green came with shrimp and bay scallops from the Sea of Cortez, a tomatillo based salsa and avocado. The red replaced the tomatillo salsa with one made with chiles de arbol and lime.
I chose the green and was happy with that decision. The flavors were clean and tangy. I suspect that I would have been equally happy with the rojo.
One of my favorite sandwiches ever was the Cemita MilanesaI had at El As de Oros in a little mall in Puebla a few years back. It was stuffed with pork, veal or beef cutlet, panela cheese, avocado, onions and salsa roja on a special sesame seed bun and benefitted from a little Popalo, a Mexican green that is difficult to find in the US. Xoco’s Milanesa was similar, but changed a key element – the bun. At Xoco they used a delicious bread that was treated in a similar fashion as a panino on the griddle. While not quite as thrilling as the one in Puebla, it was still a delicious craveworthy sandwich.
Even better than the Torta Milanes was the Friday special torta – Smoky Garlic Shrimp. This one, ordered by my wife, brought to mind another all-time favorite sandwich – the shrimp and oyster po’boyfrom Parkway Bakery and Tavern in New Orleans. The key similarity was the abundance of sweet shrimp flavor and perfect texture. Once again, Xoco’s bread was outstanding and the Mexican flavor profile in the sandwich was marvelous. I would eat this sandwich again in a heartbeat.
Somehow we failed to order dessert. Xoco is known for their churros, but by the time we finished our lunches, we were both stuffed and had to get started to the airport. We will not make the same mistake again. The food at Xoco is Rick Bayless’ take on Mexican sandwiches and caldos. He and his staff do a great job in nice surroundings at a reasonable price. The only downside is their own popularity and the crowd waiting to orders and to pick up their orders. Going early, as we did, minimized that as an issue for us. I hate to wait in line for restaurants, but this was good enough and a good enough value that I probably wouldn’t mind it.