During this diabetic lull between Valentine's Day truffles and chocolate bunnies, it's best to appreciate the savory things in life. Although we're accustomed to the saccharine pleasures of cocoa in its sweeter forms, the ingredient thrives against the salty profiles of meats and the spicy notes of chili peppers. Without the sugar beard, chocolate is a complex marvel, each piece wildly different from the next. So give that sweet tooth a break and start to taste the stuff already.
Carnassier Chocolate Bar at Coco Rouge
Okay, so it isn't exactly rocket science; executive chefs, home cooks and inventive bachelors around the world are all well acquainted with the failsafe technique of bacon-boosting, the premise that everything—absolutely everything—tastes better with a little salt pork wrapped around it.
This verity assured that it was only a matter of time before someone thought to combine two of the culinary world's most beloved ingredients into one exquisite treat: the Carnassier ($7). Otherwise known as "Holy crap, they bacon'd up that candy bar," the chocolate bar features maple-infused bacon nibs folded into hand-blended chocolate. Nervous palates should take a tip from old hats; don't treat the Carnassier like a Snickers. Let the bittersweet chocolate melt into a salty pool on your tongue, and then take care of those lingering bacon bits.
Rojo Mole at Taqueria La Oaxaquena
Anyone who knows a thing or two about mole is aware that it's criminal to presume one sauce is better than the next. Mole recipes are sacred—passed through generations to reflect individual family histories. That said, newbies would do well to start with the pollo en mole Oaxaqueno ($9.95) at this neighborhood taqueria that specializes in dishes from Oaxaca, Mexico.
A half-chicken, drunken with an impossibly soulful sauce, comes nestled over a bed of rice. The simple dish proves that chocolate doesn't always have to be the main attraction. For centuries, cocoa has been used as just one component of the traditional Mexican mole. The deep profiles of chocolate lend an earthy depth to Oaxaquena's complex gravy, but the emphasis is on the mingling of flavors.
Chili at Chili Mac's 5-Way Chili
Bars, tailgate parties and county fairs across the land have long played host to legions of cauldron-dragging aspiring chili chefs, and for what? What's so spectacular about this chunky bean stew? It seems that the charm of this utterly American concoction lies in the nuance: How many ways can cooks combine beans, meat, tomatoes and peppers?
Most connoisseurs agree that when it comes to a regional edge, Cincinnati's got it all wrapped up. Like all true Cincy versions, this Lakeview joint gets crazy with the chocolate—adding a telltale sweetness and a distinct depth to accompany the slow burn of poblano peppers. Order it 1-way for just the chili, 2-way over spaghetti, 3-way for a shower of Wisconsin cheddar, or go for the 5-way if you want the mountainous pile topped with onions and kidney beans.
Chuleta en Mole de Platano at Cuatro
Dressed with sweet corn ice cream and cocoa nib-tequila creme, Cuatro's Oaxacan chocolate mousse cake makes it a struggle to walk the savory line. No one can blame you. Cuatro's dessert menu, which includes a martini made with Argentinian sugarcane vodka and wild Bolivian cocoa beans, might be Chicagoland's best representation of sweet chocolate fare from south of the Panama Canal.
But, those who are still game for a savory swallow should opt for the chuleta en mole de platano macho ($25) as an entree. A 16-ounce double pork chop is tenderized with a 36-hour marinade of roasted sugar-cane juice, served with a crisp yucca cake and smothered in plantain mole sauce. Robust and intricate, this silky red mole balances the sweetness of the mashed-up plantains and chocolate with other earthy spices.