News & Opinion > Reviews >

Xoco

A Chicago Raves and Faves

The first thing you have to conquer is the name. The pronunciation of the Rick Bayless restaurant, XOCO, is SHO-co.

The second thing you have to manage is getting in the door. Yes, it’s true that lines can be long, especially at lunch.

However, once you’ve gotten past those hurdles, everything at XOCO is easy.

The line leads you right in front of the open kitchen where you can watch busy white-coated cooks prep all the ingredients for the multi-faceted Mexican menu. They are cutting peppers, assembling spices, mixing guacamole right in front of you—which, when you think about it, is a great marketing tool to prepare you for ordering. After all, you’ve had the chance to see for yourself how fresh the food is, and it’s easy to just point and say, “I’ll have what he’s making.”

While standing in line may not sound appealing, the people at Xoco make it part of the experience. They bring you a menu in line, and answer your questions with humor and a true knowledge of the menu—these are employees who have tasted the food and aren’t afraid to confide their favorites.

Somehow they make it feel like a full service restaurant, even though you are ordering and paying at the counter and carrying a XOCO number back to your table (assuming you can snag one during busy periods). Perhaps it’s the little touches that make the difference; for example, you can take your dessert with you when you order, or you can ask them to deliver it to your table when you are done with your entrée. Their servers are attentive and it’s a system that works, especially if you don’t trust yourself to have dessert just sitting there while you wait for food.

For lunch, I recommend you start with the chips and guacamole. It is appealing from the start, as you watch the cooks behind the counter expertly pulling out the avocado pulp and mixing it fresh to deliver table to table. The chips are beautifully seasoned and balance the guacamole perfectly. Any of the sandwiches will please as long as you like grilled bread and loads of meat filling, and don't neglect the dipping sauces that come with them--they really are there for a purpose. Be sure and try the fresh squeezed limonade, which complements any of the lunch dishes beautifully. And leave your tips at the counter when you pay your bill. All tips are split, so you can cover cooks, counter and wait staff easily that way.

Rethinking Mexican for Breakfast

When it comes to making news in breakfast, one of the bigger things to happen in recent years is XOCO. What Bayless has done to make us rethink our Gringo knowledge of tacos and burritos for lunch, he’s also done for breakfast in making us rethink our breakfast sandwiches and pancakes. He's right on trend, too; Ethnic Invasion is one of The Food Channel's top breakfast trends of 2011.

Maybe it was the snow and freezing temperature, but when I made it to XOCO for breakfast, there wasn’t another soul in line. That gave me plenty of time to study the breakfast menu and discuss my options with the counter clerk.

“Do I want the breakfast torta,” I asked, “or the French toast?”

“That depends,” she said, “on whether you are in the mood for sweet or savory.”

And, that, of course, was it in a nutshell. The French toast, or Torreja, was described as “wood oven French-toast, local maple syrup, Gunthorp bacon with a pecan sprinkle.” The torta was grilled bread with a bean spread, spices, a poached egg and salsa served open-faced. The deciding factor was my desire to sample the famous churro with Mexican hot chocolate—that’s sweet enough for one morning, so savory it was. No regrets – even now, I’m remembering the flavors of the torta and wishing for one more bite.

The churro deserves its own mention, of course, whether you are there for breakfast or for lunch. It’s just a lovely rope of sweet cinnamon sugar and dough that blends perfectly with the hot chocolate. I went with the Classic, with a hot chocolate and 2% milk, but you can get the Almendrado with almond milk, or go all the way to the rich, whole milk Barcelona. There seriously may be no better treat than a churro and a cup of XOCO hot chocolate.

You can also look over the blackboard menu to check out the daily specials. Many of the food items call out a specific farm—in fact, signage in the restaurant credits places such as Little Farm on the Prairie, Pleasant Meadow Farm, City Farm, and even the Bayless Family Gardens.

Whatever you choose, try to sit for awhile and enjoy the atmosphere. The smells alone are glorious. They waft around the twisted corners of the restaurant and take you by surprise with their earthy, sweet and all together intriguing mix. It's a LEED certified green building, to Bayless' credit. So, follow your nose, take a taxi, or book your hotel near this corner of North Clark in Chicago so you can experience all of the Bayless concepts while you are in town. While takeout is available all day, relax if you can—Latin music plays in the background, and the chairs that line the outer walls are great for people watching.