Xoco – Chicago

Xoco is the newest restaurant from chef and Top Chef Master Rick Bayless, co-owner of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill.

The casual eatery draws inspiration from Mexican street food, but with usual Bayless style, incorporates sophisticated flavours, using local garden and farm-sourced ingredients.
All three restaurants are located in the same building, segueing from the raucous fiesta vibe at Frontera, to the more subdued grown up room of Topolo, and finally to Xoco, the streetwise little sister.
 

This is serious cooking served up, in all three rooms, against a decor that evokes celebration. Maybe fiesta is a better word. Shimmering tilework, wavy patterns, vibrant folk art, long curtains and the harlequin patterning used subtly in Topolobampo, which reminded me of a circus tent, all of it suggesting a well-thought out concept.
Xoco suggests a street festival by bringing the kitchen to the public’s eye. Pull up to the street-facing window and watch churros being made to order. I half expected a take-out window.
But like a lot of popular street food stalls, a line up quickly ensues. (The best times to avoid the hoards, are either early morning, or between 2 and 3 pm.).
For an extra special something, Xoco also offers soft serve ice cream to accompany those churros. I just thought that was so brilliant. House made soft serve. Soft serve, the stuff of my childhood.
The combination of the two just rocked.
 
Breakfast empanadas and churros and ice cream was a breakfast of champions.

 

Besides churros and freshly ground cacao for bean-to-cup hot chocolate offered in six styles from authentic with water to almendrado with almond milk, to my personal favourite Aztec, a blend of chilie and allspice, Xoco does tortas like nobody’s business.
With nine varieties to choose from including daily specials like pork belly and breakfast tortas, we went for the best selling Ahogada, stuffed with pork carnitas, black beans, tomato broth, spicy arbol chile sauce and pickled onions.
Next came the Woodland Mushroom, with wood-roasted garlic mushrooms, Prairie Farm goat cheese, black beans, wild arugula and a 3-chile salsa.

Both were lusciously delicious, freshly made and clean tasting, all gathered together in that bread! A firm crust that holds the ingredients, but with enough give to allow a nice big bite full. The finishing touch with every torta is a session in the wood-fired oven. Giving the crust a slightly toasty aroma and just a bit of char.
 
After 3 pm everyday, caldos are also served, including pozole, seafood, pork belly vermicelli and shortrib red chile soup. So many caldos, so little time.
We enjoyed the chicken pozole, topped with a crunchy cabbage garnish, lime for squeezing and ground red chile for a kick. Again a clean tasting broth, with heaps of chicken and hominy corn. Hearty and delicious.
 
The interior of Xoco is warm and inviting, with artwork by Jane Fulton Alt depicting Mexican market scenes, and Bill Blair’s fantasy hand tinted photo montages. Why, look here, if it isn’t the artist Bill Blair sitting in front of his artwork.

His flying torta image graces the menu’s cover and also the T shirts that the staff wear.

We also enjoyed a dinner at Frontera where we made new friends, and our last night in Chicago was spent dining at Topolobampo, where we enjoyed different tasting menus that were so stunning, it left us speechless. It started with the first course, a sweet corn-huitlacoche tamal with a frothy sauce of Bayless garden squash blossoms, Oaxacan quesillo cheese and poblano chile. The dish was presented with ‘confetti’ – there’s that fiesta again – of summer squash, and the waiter then shook a white mesh bag over the top of the dish anointing it with huitlacoche dust. The action was very shaman-like, the dish ethereal. I might have lost consciousness at that point, because I only vaguely remember wines like silk and velvet elixirs, and other dishes like a squid ink black rice under Arctic char, and a dessert of coconut dreams.
Topolobampo. You put a spell on me.
For those who want to create their own Bayless-inspired fiestas at home, check out his new cookbook, Fiesta at Rick’s.
Oh, and behind every great man is a great woman. That would be you, Deann.


One Response to “Xoco – Chicago”

  1. Sarah Frye says:

    Oh my gosh you guys, it looks and sounds delicious! And Bill’s artwork is just perfect!
    you’ve just made me hungry, and I just finished dinner.

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