XOCO, 449 North Clark Street (enter on Illinois St.), Chicago
Let’s go to Xoco for breakfast, said Mr. FB.
In case you don’t know, Fellow FoodBeest, Xoco is Rick Bayless’s “little sister” to Frontera Grill and Topolobambo. It features the best of street food from all over Mexico – boosted by the deft hand of Chef Bayless.
Bayless spent years touring Mexico, sampling regional food, and transforming both the most elevated and the most mundane into an art form before bringing it to an America that thought that the sum and substance of Mexican food was tacos, burritos and quesadillas. With maybe some guacamole on the side.
Bayless is the recipient of three James Beard awards: Midwest Chef of the Year, National Chef of the Year and Humanitarian of the Year. His Chicago-based restaurants were groundbreaking in altering what we Americans know and appreciate about Mexican cuisine/cocina.
Lovers of Mexican food and Mexican culture, we had enjoyed both Frontera and Topo, but never Xoco, and had heard about their amazing breakfasts and lunches and especially the churros, a traditional Mexican version of our terribly au courant donut.
Xoco, we discovered, stops serving breakfast at 10 and starts lunch service at 11. We arrived at the 40-seat corner restaurant at 10:30. No one takes table orders at Xoco. You stand in line, place your order, and the staff brings you your food.
“We only serve churros until 11,” they told us.
Oh, no! Only churros? So sad. Or as Uncle Remus told of Br’er Rabbit’s response to Br’er Fox’s threat, “Oh, no, Br’er Fox! Please don’t throw me in the briar patch!”
So we had churros. And coffee. Or in my case chocolate café con leche. Hard to take. Poor us.
Our churros were plain and unadorned but for the sugar, but they are also available glazed with chocolate/peanut, pistachio, or Margarita/almond.
San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is one of my favorite cities in the world. Almost in the dead center of Mexico with not a beach in sight, SMA contains a large enclave of American ex-pats, most of whom are both a little bit wonderful and a little bit crazy. There is a restaurant in SMA’s Centro called San Augustin that is both an institution and a bit of a tourist trap in that town. It is owned by Mexican telenovella actress Margarita Gralia.. Visitors to SMA are almost required to stop there for churros and hot chocolate before leaving town. We have been there several times. And it’s ok.
But, my dear friends in SMA, I am sorry to tell you that San Augustin doesn’t hold a candle to the churros at Xoco. Not even in the same ballpark. Xoco’s churrros are warm, crispy, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and who knows what else. What’s more they don’t retain a smidge of the oil they are fried in.
We enjoyed our amazing churros and by the time we glanced over at 11:05, we could see that a line had already formed for the lunch service. So in the spirit of “eat dessert first,” it was time to order lunch.
And what a lunch.
Xoco’s lunch menu is mostly tortas, Mexican sandwiches, and caldos, a cross between a soup and a stew. Both hearty, delicious and each one representative of a different region in Mexico.
We shared an Ahogada (drowned) torta. It was made of pork carnitas, quite literally drowning in a tomato broth spiked with arbol chili and black beans. The bolla roll was thick, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, the carnitas rich and satisfying and balanced with pickled onions. It was also really messy. Drip down your face messy. Not the kind of sandwich I want to eat with a client in my new silk blouse, Fellow FoodBeest. But perfect for us.
We also had a seafood caldos, a big bowl of sweet red chile broth, thick with big shrimp, delicate mussels, catfish, potatoes and grilled onions. It fit my personal critera for a good soup: every spoonful included a nice hunk of what made it special: a bit of shrimp, a smidge of fish, a potato. A beautiful, thick pile of pea shoots graced the top and it was sprinkled with cilantro and lime for cooling and tang.
I know what you’re thinking, Fellow FoodBeest. “Not exactly breakfast food.” Nope, you’re right. But a great brunch and if parking wasn’t so difficult/expensive in that busy neighborhood, we’d be there much more often.
Breakfast options include seasonal empanadas, huevos rancheros, chilaquiles and breakfast tortas. And of course churros. And after all, Xoco, you had me at churros.
If I can’t be in Mexico this winter, I can enjoy Xoco. It may well be the most authentic, bestest Mexican street food outside of (or maybe even inside of) Mexico.