For those of you who don’t watch Food Network religiously and fangirl over celebrity chefs like I do, Bayless is largely credited with bringing Mexican food into the fine-dining scene by sprucing it up with modern flavors.
He has three restaurants in the Loop: Frontera Grill (opened 1987), Topolobampo (1989) and XOCO (2009), all of which are located at the intersection of Clark and Illinois streets near Navy Pier. Each is a different price point and offers different food, Topolobampo being the most expensive and XOCO the cheapest.
Bayless’s Emmy-nominated show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, is now in its eighth season on PBS. He competed in the very first episode of Iron Chef America against Bobby Flay. He won Top Chef Masters in 2009 and was a guest chef at the White House the same year.
Needless to say, I was beyond thrilled to taste Bayless’ creations when I walked through the doors of XOCO (449 N. Clark St.). The menu features tortas (Mexican sandwiches) and caldos, which are hearty soups that XOCO dubs “meals-in-a-bowl.”
The restaurant seems to be specifically built to accommodate the long line of people trying to cram their way inside. When you walk in, you’re shuffled into a line, which eventually leads to two cash registers. Once you get past a certain point, you’re asked how many people are in your party, and once given a table number, you are able to place an order at the counter and go sit down.
My friend and I arrived around 9 p.m. and the line stretched the whole length of the restaurant. The wonderful staff make the wait less bearable as they take your drink order and explain the menu and their favorite dishes. From the line, you also get to watch all the food being made and drool over the guacamole and its toppings being scooped into bowls and the tortas being put into the oven.
After about 45 minutes, we were given table No. 77 and allowed to order. Our “table” turned out to be a two-chair section of a counter that stretched the length of the wall, but the counter did allow for maximum seating, which was obviously necessary for such a popular restaurant.
Our food arrived immediately, which was fantastic because my excitement and the long wait left me starving.
The first item to make an appearance at our section of the counter was the guacamole. XOCO’s guacamole ($7) is served with a choice of two toppings (we chose bacon and queso fresco), two different salsas and freshly made chips. The guacamole tasted fresh and light and the addition of the toppings was unique, but the portion size was a bit small for the price and the flavor didn’t overly wow me.
Our tortas arrived next. The menu is split into tortas from the wood-burning oven and tortas from the griddle. I ordered the pepito ($12), which comes on crusty bread and is cooked in the oven. My friend ordered the milanesa ($10.25), which is cooked on the griddle and is a panini-style sandwich.
The pepito has braised Tallgrass short ribs, caramelized onions, artisan Jack cheese, black beans and pickled jalapenos and is served with a tomatillo salsa for dipping. Part of the bread is hollowed out and the short ribs and other ingredients are stuffed inside before putting the torta in the oven to bake. It’s as delicious as it sounds, if not more so.
The short ribs were tender and plentiful. The cheese oozed out of the sides and calmed down the spice from the pickled jalapenos and tomatillo salsa. The ingredients were layered together so that each bite had a little of everything. It almost tasted like a really, really good Mexican version of a philly cheesesteak, but even that is somewhat of an insult to the pepito.
The Milanesa has crispy Gunthorp chicken, black beans, artisan Jack cheese, pickled jalapenos and red onions, Napa cabbage, tomatillo-avocado salsa and homemade cilantro crema. It was pressed on the griddle so the bread was toasted and crunchy.
The chicken was seasoned and breaded and it was definitely the focal point of the sandwich. The pickled onions added a tangy touch and the cilantro crema balanced nicely with the salsa, although neither had a very strong presence in the sandwich.
Both sandwiches were fabulous and filling, despite the pepito’s smaller portion size (my eyes are often bigger than my stomach though).
For dessert, my friend and I split three churros ($1.60 each or $4 for three) with chocolate sauce for dipping ($1.25). The churros were a bit small, but three was the perfect amount for splitting. They were light and fluffy with tons of cinnamon sugar. XOCO makes its own chocolate, so I had very high expectations. Unfortunately they weren’t met. The chocolate sauce was bitter, almost like melted baking chocolate, and I found the churros were better without it.
Verdict: Rick Bayless did not totally disappoint me. XOCO is the perfect mix of casual eatery atmosphere and fine-dining flavors. The wait is a bit of a bummer, but the food is so much more than worth it (even with minor disappointments). The tortas at XOCO are a must-try dish in Chicago.