I’m almost never game to wait in a long line to eat. But I joined a line stretching outside the door at Xoco in Chicago last Saturday because I couldn’t stand to hear another rave about the place without experiencing what all the fuss is about for myself. Xoco is a fast food Mexican place owned by former “Top Chef” master chef Rick Bayless, whom my colleague Laurel Miller once memorably described as an “all-around culinary badass.”
The place has a whopping 1,662 reviews on Yelp – 897 of them mention the otherworldly churros – and about the only people who pan it are those who can’t get a table. (There are only four restaurants in Chicago with more reviews on Yelp: Kuma’s Corner (burgers), Hot Doug’s (hot dogs/sausages), Girl & The Goat (New American) and Smoque BBQ.) I’ve been hearing about how unforgettably good this place is since it opened in 2009 – the place is a tourist attraction in itself – but was reminded that I needed to try it after seeing a write-up on it from Grant Martin in our budget guide to Chicago in late January.We arrived at 1 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, which is probably the worst possible time to try eat here. But the line moved fast and I actually needed the half hour or so to study the menu and the daily specials. I knew that I wanted a torta, a Mexican sandwich made on fresh bread from Labriola Baking Company (another great place to eat in Chicago’s western suburbs) that is cooked in a wood burning oven, but I was torn between getting the Choriqueso, which is made with homemade chorizo sausage, roasted poblano, artisan Jack cheese and tomatillo salsa, and the Baja chicken, which comes with homemade chipotle mayo, Napa cabbage/radish slaw and black beans.
I went for the Baja chicken, my wife got the pork carnitas and we shared an order of churros with sides of chocolate and soft serve vanilla ice cream. The bill, with no drinks was more than $40, including a hot chocolate we bought for our boys. My torta was absolutely mouth watering. The bread is crusty, the ingredients are fresh and the rich salsa and creamy mayo are an excellent accompaniment to a sandwich that is just about perfect. My only complaint is that at $11, it should be bigger. In fact, it was so damn good that I easily could have eaten two of them.
But the reason why I’m already salivating at the prospect of returning to Xoco is the churros. Good lord, the churros. Forget about the crunchy, flavorless things you buy from a cart on the street or in a hole-in-the-wall Mexican bakery. Those things don’t even deserve to have the same name as the treats that are served up at Xoco.
They literally melt in your mouth and the flavor is so intensely sweet and cinnamony that it brings a smile to your face. Really, I challenge anyone to walk into Xoco in a terrible mood, eat a churro and see what happens to your demeanor. These damn things could bring peace to the Holy Land for crying out loud. My wife liked to dip them in the sinfully rich, decadent chocolate but I preferred the cinnamon/vanilla ice cream combo. How do you want your Powerball winnings – lump sum or yearly payouts? You can’t go wrong either way.
After visiting Xoco in the city, I found out there was a Frontera Fresco with many of the same menu items a Norris Hall on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, only a mile from my house. I went there with my wife on a Friday at 1:30 p.m. and there was no line whatsoever. Even better, most of the tortas were $1 or $2 cheaper than they are downtown. I had the Cubana, which comes with pork loin and bacon, black beans, avocado, artisan Jack cheese, chipotle mustard, Morita chiles and homemade cilantro crema. It was pretty damn good though not quite as tasty as the Baja Chicken or the carnitas.
But the campus location, alas, has no churros. Damn them! But they do have soft serve yogurt – try the coconut – and some very tasty almond cookies and bread pudding. My verdict: Xoco is worth the hype, especially the churros, but if you hate to wait, head north to Evanston.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]