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August 26, 2010


Woodland Mushroom Torta Dominic Armato

Outside of the city itself and food nerd circles (and even within some of the latter), Chicago doesn't usually make the short list of Mexican hot spots. I'm unsure of why this is. Perhaps because it's still a little too easy for many to pigeonhole Chicago as the deep dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dog place. Perhaps because many refuse to entertain the notion that a U.S. city 1,200 miles from Mexico might have more to offer than cities that are a stone's throw away. Perhaps because many confuse quantity (though Chicago's no slouch in that department, either) with quality and variety. Whatever the reason, it's something that should be common knowledge, but still isn't: Chicago may be the best place outside of Mexico to sample regional Mexican cuisine.

GuacamoleDominic Armato

You don't have to take my word for it, of course. Rick Bayless' victory on the first season of Top Chef Masters taught a whole lot of people what Chicagoans have known for over a decade... that the dude is a fantastic chef, clinically obsessive about his chosen specialty, and a total authority on the details thereof. And though my Google-fu is inadequate, apparently, to find the exact quote, Bayless himself puts Chicago ahead of even Los Angeles in terms of the availability of authentic regional Mexican food. And not because he overvalues his own contribution to the scene. Quite the contrary, part of Bayless' charm is that he's a tireless champion of humble Mexican food made by humble hands in humble restaurants. And as great as Bayless' restaurants are, I'd send first-time Chicago visitors to a number of other places before Frontera Grill or Topolobampo. Which isn't a shot at Bayless. The guy deserves every bit of praise he gets. It's just that if you're looking for an education in an ethnic cuisine, I think the simple, traditional end of the spectrum is far more valuable than the creative upscale fare (tasty though the latter may be). All of which is to say that if you're visiting Chicago, there are Mexican restaurants I hope you'll visit before Xoco (one of which I'll be posting about shortly). But I'm going to write about Xoco anyway.

Pork Belly TortaDominic Armato

Xoco is a sandwich shop. It's the quick(ish) service Mexican restaurant Bayless opened last year around the corner from his more formal endeavors. Though there's plenty of good stuff to be found there, the focus at Xoco is on tortas. So when you're spending a night in a River North hotel just a few blocks away and a quick lunch is called for, Xoco fits the bill perfectly. Somehow, that lunch turned into two. I had my eye on Mac & Min's for checkout day (I loved Jerry's, I love seafood po' boys... kind of a no-brainer), but my ladylove was sufficiently impressed by Xoco that she requested an immediate return. And who am I to deny my ladylove, particularly when she's exhibiting such exquisite taste? Xoco is crammed into tight quarters, and has to some degree become a victim of its own success. It can be a zoo, and the limited amount of table and counter seating is rarely enough. In response, they've developed an odd system where you wait in line and then continue waiting at the front of the line until seats are free, at which point they'll take your order and you can sit down. It gets the job done.

Mole Poblano TortaDominic Armato

A selection of soups goes live after 3:00, but the lunchtime menu is almost exclusively comprised of tortas, with an assortment of starters and a selection of freshly roasted, ground and prepared hot cocoas. There are nine or ten regular tortas, plus a daily special or two that are available on a rotating basis. The five we tried (hey, leftovers) were all out of the wood burning oven, and they share one of the best things about Xoco... absolutely killer bread. When you've had your share of run-of-the-mill tortas on cheap, spongy bread, it's really refreshing to get a freshly baked roll with flavor and bite and a real, crisp crust. You could throw prepackaged deli meat on this stuff and it'd taste great. Thankfully, Bayless is aiming a little higher. Day one provided what were probably my two favorites, the woodland mushroom and Wednesday's special, the pork belly. I was a little surprised by how much I enjoyed the woodland mushroom. The mushroom and goat cheese combo is ubiquitous and starts to get old after a while. But this sandwich was jam-packed with mushrooms that were roasted to an earthy intensity and yet remained almost juicy. Add a handful of crisp arugula, smear of black beans and mild yet complex salsa for dipping, and I envied my ladylove's selection. Not that much, however, since my pork belly was exactly what anybody ordering pork belly is probably hoping for, silky and rich with a dark, spicy, lightly sweet glaze, crisp bacon (yes, more pork belly), nutty queso anejo and just enough fresh veg to keep the meatiness from getting out of control. Both sandwiches were shockingly good.

Ahogada TortaDominic Armato

Our second pass didn't quite yield the same level of deliciousness, but was still a cut above. The big disappointment for me was Wednesday's special, the mole poblano, which did great things with braised pork but needed more than the kiss of mole it got for my tastes. The other problematic torta was mostly my fault. When I ordered the ahogada, I was asked if I'd prefer mild, medium or hot. I instinctively answered, "Hot!" with a little too much glee, and realized about seven seconds later that this was a place where they probably actually meant it. Problem is, the torta ahogada, Jaliscan in origin, is saturated with a chili and vinegar-based sauce. It's already a spicy bomb by nature. So while enthusiastically asking them to max the heat index didn't render my sandwich inedible, it pushed it past the point where, for me at least, the spice became more destructive than constructive. Which is too bad, because the carnitas were beautiful, the bread was spot-on, and it was even presented in an unorthodox but completely ingenious manner, halved the short way and standing vertically in a small bowl of the sauce, keeping the bread crisp, allowing you to control the amount of sauce you got, and making it considerably easier to eat. Our consensus favorite on day two was the pepito, which paired impossibly tender braised beef with caramelized onions, jack cheese, black beans and pickled jalapenos. It was a warm and melty mess, with the appeal of an upscale Mexican patty melt, and the jalapenos were key, adding a little zip and enough acid to play off the warm, cheesy, gooey heart of the beast. Great sandwich.

Aztec Chocolate and ChurrosDominic Armato

Desserts are not an afterthought. Chocolate chip cookies with Mexican chocolate (natch) are fine specimens. Thankfully, the folks at LTH had caught onto the pecan shortbread cookie before we went, because it really is a gem, with a light, buttery, nutty flavor and crumbly texture that turns soft as you chew. The focus of the desserts is, of course, the hot chocolates, which are made from cacao beans freshly roasted and ground in-house. They'll be off-putting to some. This isn't sweet milk with chocolate flavoring, which I consider a good thing. These are extremely intense, complex drinks with prominent sour, bitter and spicy components. The one I selected, the Aztec chocolate, was particularly spicy as it worked the ancient chocolate and chiles combination. The only problem I had with it was that there was way too much of it. I know, I know, I'm under no obligation to finish it. But the mug you see here, though narrow, was probably 5" tall, while a demitasse cup would have done it for me. Well, maybe a little more if you dip the also available freshly fried churros. Which I did. And I recommend it.

Pecan Shortbread CookieDominic Armato

The crowds aside, about the biggest complaint I've heard levied against Xoco -- and it's definitely the kind of complaint that only a food nerd could make -- is that you could get these sandwiches elsewhere in the city for almost half the price from somebody who isn't a celebrity. It's... sort of true. There are some places well off the beaten path that make tortas this good. But Xoco provides an unusually dense collection of excellent sandwiches, and if the biggest knock on the place is that you might be able to cobble together a better or comparable experience if you do a ton of research and truck all over town, well... I think that speaks mighty well of what Bayless has done here. I'm reminded of when a local blogger dinged Bayless for being a non-Mexican expert on Mexican cuisine, to which, incidentally, Bayless tweeted one of the best comebacks of all time ("JuliaChild,TKeller?"). Though indelicately stated and definitely obfuscated by what could be most charitably be called sour grapes, there was a good point in there: that Mexican food in Chicago isn't and shouldn't be all about Rick Bayless. There, we agree. There are hordes of Mexican chefs doing great work in the city who don't get a miniscule fraction of the attention that Bayless does (Bayless, I believe, would say the same). But where we differ -- and strongly -- is in whether that should be held against him. As always, the food deserves to be judged on its own merits. And this is some very good food.

449 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60654
Tue - Thu7:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri7:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sat8:00 AM - 10:00 PM


(long time reader, first time poster here...)

My husband practices early morning yoga close by Xoco. On Wednesday mornings he'll return home with 2 breakfast tortas. I F'LOVE Wednesdays.

Nice posting! I went to Xoco earlier this year and loved it.

Yay! My husband and I are going to Chicago in January for the second time -- last time we ate at Topolobampo and loved it, so Xoco is on our list for this trip. So glad it's good!

I had the Ahogada Torta a little while after Xoco opened, ordered it mild, and can confirm that it still had plenty of kick to it. (Thankfully, I asked them what they meant by "mild".) Haven't made it back since, but that was a darn good sandwich.

I'm ashamed to admit I still haven't been there. What's funny about that whole mini-controversy is that, from what I've read, Bayless is absolutely beloved among the local chefs. Nobody - nobody - has a single bad word to say about him, even the other Mexican chefs whom he supposedly steals attention from.

Wow, I had no idea that Bayless had such a proclivity for Twitter spats. He's currently in a one-sided one with Jonathan Gold because Gold accurately referenced the point you bring up in your review (the one about "LA hadn't seen real Mexican food until Bayless brought it here with his exteremely limited role in the very-poorly received Red O") while giving a talk. Bayless countered with a "I never said that, you should do a better job of fact checking". All that aside, I, as a native Chicagoan, really like Bayless and his food. I look forward to eating at Xoco when I get the chance

With all due respect to Chef Bayless, southern Califonia is far ahead of Chicago in terms of the availability of quality Mexican food. Yes, Bayless and his empire have done a good job at increasing the regional diversity of Mexican food available. Much of SoCal offers that which is common to only a few selct states, like Baja or Sonora, or if you know where to look, Jalisco.

Moreover, Mexican food is pervasive in SoCal. It is everywhere. It influences other food that isn't Mexican in origin. Foods that are native to Mexico do as much influencing of other food in SoCal as they appear in their own right. You simply cannot say that about Chicago. There certainly is very good Mexican in Chicago, but to say that Chicago is better for Mexican food than Southern California is quite simply, incorrect.

Anon Man... well, though I lived in L.A. for six years, this was before what I'd term my true culinary awakening (I weep for the missed opportunity), so my thoughts on the matter may be significantly skewed by where my meager knowledge was when I was living in both respective places. Which is why I reference His Bayless. But unless I'm misreading what you write, aren't you partly saying it yourself?

"Much of SoCal offers that which is common to only a few selct states, like Baja or Sonora, or if you know where to look, Jalisco."

My impression, which has only been bolstered by Bayless' claim, is that SoCal's Mexican scene is a lot more homogenous, more heavily skewed not only towards a select few states, but also heavily characterized by the Mexican equivalent of Italian-American -- rooted in the mother country, but kind of its own thing.

So if you want to try excellent examples of the specialties of Baja, Puebla, Jalisco, Yucatan, Oaxaca, Sonora and Veracruz, would you be more likely to find that full spectrum in L.A. or Chicago? Honest question... I'd be thrilled to defer to a more-educated opinion here. I'm just under the impression that L.A.'s scene is, as you point out, much more focused on a select few states, as pervasive as those states' influence on L.A.'s cuisine might be.

I just came back from a small joint in Mexico City that has the best tortas ahogadas i've ever tasted outside of Jalisco, and found this post on my rss feeds.

If you happen to visit Mexico City, you should try them. They wisely serve them with spicy tomato sauce on the plate, and a small bowl of REALLY hot sauce on the side so you can mix it in gradually.

El Pialadero de Guadalajara
Corner of Hamburgo and Lieja
Near Chapultepec subway
Mexico City

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