When it opened last September, expectations were high for Xoco (“little sister” in Aztec), Rick Bayless’s quick-stop, Mexican “street food” eatery offering mainly tortas (sandwiches), salads, and caldos (soups). And so were the lines. Bayless had just won Top Chef Master and anticipation from Chicagoans had climbed after more than a year of waiting for the opening. Talk about pressure.
My sister, Martha, and I couldn’t wait to try it out. Our first visit about a month after opening did not disappoint. We arrived at Xoco before the lunch hour crush. About 15 minutes later, we were placing our order. Not bad! Although a visibly stressed Bayless was seen pacing between the kitchen and reporters during the opening days, things went smoothly despite the throngs of people descending on this small corner spot alongside Frontera Grill and Topolobompo.
As you enter and wait in line to place your order, you are struck by the aromas of tortas crisping in the wood-burning oven, bright colors of freshly scooped guac and aguas frescas, and sights of hot chocolate and cinnamon-sugared-covered churros being made to order at the far end of the long, open kitchen. The entire setup is intended to re-create the feel of the on-the-spot street food experience. It is good to have some wait time. You’ll need it to read the menu, and you’ll find yourself changing your mind as you watch all the different creations get carried out to customers.
Six tortas from the wood-burning oven, three kinds from the griddle, and a daily torta special are the main stars at lunchtime. One soup that changes daily is also offered as are a large Xoco salad and small side salad. The Pepito torta filled with braised Tallgrass short ribs, caramelized onion, artisan Jack, black beans, and pickled jalapeños melded richness in a good—and messy—way with the substantial rustic crustiness of the warm bollilo.
Martha choose the Cubana, a delicious take on the classic Cubana sandwich, which housed smoked Maple Creek pork loin and bacon, black beans, avocado, artisan Jack, and chipotle mustard between two crisp slices of telera, a flatter bread. “The bread definitely makes the sandwich,” Martha said. She’s right. The bolillo Bayless uses is a hand-formed, slow-fermented bread that is specially made by Labriola Baking Company. I plan to come back for breakfast for that toasted bolillo with butter and jam alone.
Beyond the bread, every ingredient and aspect has been well thought out. Bayless draws on small farmers producing sustainably-raised meats, vegetables, and other ingredients, which explains in part why tortas run from $8 to $12. But for the money, you get some of the best sandwiches in town. The tortas are substantial, and can easily be split between two people, which is what Martha and I do now. On subsequent lunch visits, the Woodland Mushroom torta, mounded with wood-roasted garlic mushrooms, Prairie Farm goat cheese, black beans, wild arugula, and three-chile salsa, became our next new favorite. By our third visit, we decided we would just have to work our way through the menu and eventually try every torta. Each sounds as delicious as the next.
Not to be passed up is a crunchy side salad of romaine and arugula with slices of jícama and cucumber. The excellent guac with super crispy chips with spritzes of lime are good to get to munch on while you wait for your order to come. And if you have room, try the creamy chocoflan, with its slightly spicy notes, together with a steaming cup of café con leche. Next on my list to try are one of the half dozen hearty caldos, or soups, which are served starting at 3:00 p.m.
Everything at Xoco is superb. Bayless’s extensive knowledge of Mexican cuisine and experience in running two successful restaurants for more than 20 years shine through. You’ll taste flavors beyond your everyday fare and will leave feeling satisfied.
449 North Clark Street
Closed Sunday and Monday