Since winning Top Chef Masters last year, Rick Bayless has been on everyone’s radar (though for many he was already). As the recognition of the American chef who travels around Mexico discovering native foods grows, so does his restaurant empire. One of his latest Chicago eateries, Xoco, sits right beside his much more expensive and now impossible to get a table at Frontera Grill and Topolabampo.
Xoco, which means Aztec for little sister, is Bayless’ first foray into budget dining and it’s an impressive one. The food narrows in on Mexican street food like tortas (sandwiches), hot chocolate, caldos (soups), and salads. The centerpiece of the restaurant is the wood-burning oven, where the majority of the cooking gets done: tortas get crisped, while suckling pigs for cochinita pibil and lamb for barbacoa are braised overnight in banana leaves. It’s like an authentic Hale n Hearty with rich Mexican flavors.
Lines go out the door from 11am on when the tortas become available (caldos don’t hit the floor until 3pm). The Pibil torta (wood-roasted suckling pig with achiote, black beans, pickled onion, and a tongue burning habanero salsa) and Pepito torta (Braised Tallgrass shortribs, caramelized onion, artisan Jack cheese, black beans, and pickled jalapenos) are standouts. There are half a dozen caldos that are a meal unto themselves: Shortrib Red Chile Soup, Wood-Roasted Chicken Pozole, Seafood, etc. Don’t leave without trying one of their churros, fried right on the spot and perfect with a cup of bean to cup (ground in the restaurant) Aztec hot chocolate (has chile and allspice).
*Special Note: Xoco has attained a LEED gold certification (hence, muy eco-friendly).
449 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60654-4500
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.