A Fiesta of Flavor...

As I recently discussed in my post about the virtues of life in Chicago, my fair city has quite a crop of renowned chefs. However, there is only one among this group who we can claim as a bonafide home-grown celebrity chef: Rick Bayless.

Bayless started his career in anthropological linguistics, and developed his interest in Mexican cuisine during the time he spent there while working on his doctoral studies. He penned a seminal cookbook on Mexican food and hosted a PBS miniseries based upon it before entering the Chicago food scene twenty years ago, with his first restaurant, Frontera Grill, which focused on authentic Mexican food (as opposed to the Tex-Mex style that dominated the American food scene). Frontera Grill's success was followed by that of Bayless' next venture, Topolobampo, a Mexican fine-dining concept with a seafood focus, and his own nationally-syndicated cooking show on PBS, Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Just this year, he competed as a "cheftestant" on Top Chef Masters, and proved victorious over prominent chefs from across the country.

Given his cult of celebrity, I've always been a little embarrassed to admit that I've never eaten at any of his restaurants. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo are a little too far out of my personal price range, and my parents never seemed interested in eating at either of them. Therefore, I was more than a little excited to hear that Bayless was preparing to open a third restaurant in the city, Xoco. His new project would be a fast-casual concept (somewhat akin to an upscale Panera) with a menu inspired by Mexican street foods such as churros, tortas (sandwiches), and soups. With most of the menu items priced at $12 or less, Xoco would definitely fall more within my budget, and its opening was hotly anticipated by not only me but several of my friends.

Even so, I felt it was important to give the initial buzz some time to wear off (as I had seen first-hand the line winding out the door when I passed it on the bus one day shortly after its grand-opening), so I did not have the opportunity to check it out until today, when I joined Lauren there for dinner. I will say, there were several idiosyncratic operational choices at Xoco that were not particularly user-friendly: since the restaurant is intended to do a brisk take-away business and to cater to diners on the run, there are not many tables, and counter seating is at a premium as well; you must have a place to sit before you can order and they assign you a number once you have a seat that enables you to jump to the front of the line, in front of the people waiting to order take-out food; you must order all of your food at once (entree, dessert, beverage, etc) but you can opt to have the different parts of your meal brought out at different times, and you must return to the counter when you are ready for the next part of your food to come -- very strange. I had read about all of these things before we ever set foot in Xoco, but I still felt like I needed an instruction manual to eat there.

That aside, some aspects of the food experience were extraordinary, others not as much. Lauren and I both ordered hot chocolates to start off the meal. Bayless' staff hand-grinds the chocolate from cacao beans in the restaurant. Yes, you read that right. They don't just make hot chocolate, they make the chocolate that goes into it. It was a transcendent experience. I ordered an Aztec hot chocolate, which was spiced with chili and allspice, and the aroma wafting off of it was out-of-this-world. Lauren was similarly pleased with her order, which featured chocolate mixed with almond milk instead of traditional cow milk.

The beverages got the meal off to such a soaring start that I could scarcely avoid being disappointed with my choice of entree. I selected the Ahogada sandwich, which featured pork carnitas (meat that has been roasted or braised and then briefly griddled to make it succulent on the inside and crispy on the outside), black beans, and pickled onions, and was described as being served with "tomato broth," ostensibly for dipping.

Unfortunately, and oddly, the sandwich arrived upright in the bowl of soup, such that the submerged portions were already soggy and the toppings were falling out. The flavors were okay, and the balance of spiciness was right on, but I couldn't shake my sense that the whole thing would have been better if the sandwich had been on the side of the soup instead of in it. Also, the pork wasn't quite as juicy or tender as I had been hoping. Still, it wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, and the rest of our meal was so outstanding that I would be more than willing to return and try a different menu item, especially one of Xoco's soups.

For dessert we opted to try the churros, which are fried to order and have been recieving a tremendous amount of buzz across the Chicago foodie blogosphere. They more than lived up to the hype. They were steaming hot and perfectly crunchy -- easily the best churros that I've ever sampled, not that I'm any sort of authority on the subject. The only thing I would do differently would be to order them at the same time as the hot chocolate to enable dipping. On their own, each item was incredible. I suspect that with their powers combined, they would be completely mind-blowing.

Despite the delicious food, the most exciting part of the evening occured after the meal, while I was waiting in line for the ladies' room. I was zoning out, not paying much attention, when a figure passed my field of vision. Just as it was about to walk out of sight, I realized that it was Rick Bayless himself! He had walked right past me and into the kitchen, and I very nearly missed him. I didn't have the chance to get a photo, or even say something to him, much less something intelligent, but I still saw him at his own restaurant. It was good to see that he was taking a hands-on role at his new venture. So many celebrity chefs are keen to manage their restaurant empires from afar while they make appearances on television and at food events, but not Mr. Bayless it seems.

I have no doubt that I will give Xoco another try, probably many more, and I'm confident that they will iron out their early challenges with their seating and ordering protocols. After all, Bayless' other restaurants have withstood the test of time, the food at Xoco is a solid product, and if his recent win on Top Chef Masters is any indicator, he hasn't lost his touch.

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