Chicago: XOCO 2011/09/17

Rick Baless is fourth generation in an Oklahoma family of restaurateurs and grocers. In 1987, Rick moved to Chicago, opened the successful Frontera Grill, which specializes in contemporary regional Mexican cooking. On the heels of Frontera Grill’s success, Rick opened the elegant Topolobampo in 1989. Adjacent to Frontera Grill, Tobolobampo is one of America’s only fine-dining Mexican restaurants. Then the Xoco, opened Sept. 8 2009, is a fast-casual restaurant emphasizing the street foods of Mexico. Bayless’ dream of owning an entire city block comes one step closer to reality. http://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/xoco.html

At XOCO, the first thing you have to conquer is the name. XOCO is pronounced “Sho-koh" (meaning “little sister" in the Aztec language).

The second thing you have to manage is getting in the door. Yes, there is always a long line going down the equally long corridor of XOCO.

However, the long line gave you a good opportunity to study the menu, which really seemed extensive. It’s as if Bayless wanted to recreate every single possible food item you’d find on the streets of Mexico.

“Where Our Food Comes From" sign

The huge chalkboard menus hang over the walls above the counter.

However, once you’ve gotten past those hurdles, everything at XOCO is easy. The line leads you right in front of the open kitchen, the centerpiece is its wood-burning oven, and where tortas get crisped and suckling pigs for cochinita pibil and lamb for barbacoa are braised overnight in banana leaves.

The restaurant is one bright and narrow room, stretching from the 49 seats on the east end to the long kitchen and ordering line near Clark Street. Wooden chairs ranged from tabletop to counter-height. The navy blue and corn meal yellow walls stand out against stainless steel, blonde wood and whimsical artwork from Bayless friends Bill Blair and Jane Fulton Alt.

Guacamole & Chips: Frontera guacamole, just-made chips, 2 salsas.

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.

Saturday Special Goat Barbacoa Tortas: Braised goat, Oaxacan pasilla-tomatillo salsa, avocado, onions & cilantro.

The tortas was nicely toasted and the bread is specially made for Bayless, a 12-hour fermented bolillo from Labriola Bakery, with an intense sourdough quality.

Seafood Meal-in-a-Bowl-Caldos: Mexican blue shrimp, mussels, catfish, red chili broth, potatoes, grilled knob onions, pea shoots, cilantro, lime.

Hot, salty, and full of fresh seafood, a dish that I haven’t had before.

Standing outside at the corner of Illinois and Clark Streets can watch the cooks fry churros and craft hot chocolate that is prepared in the building from raw cocoa bean to cup.

p.s. When I flew back to Taiwan, I found a Rick Bayless’s new Tortas Frontera restaurant in O’Hare airport’s Terminal 1. Next time I don’t have to wait boring at terminal, I’ll dine –in with good food!

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