Famed chef Rick Bayless opens his latest project, a more casual Mexican cafe next door to Frontera Grill
. Expect tortas, soups, churros, Mexican hot chocolate - and long lines.
Bayless has been a household name in Chicago for quite some time. But it wasn't until winning Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" in August 2009 that the rest of the country caught a glimpse of his authentic Mexican cooking and kindhearted nature. As fate would have it, his newest restaurant opened a few weeks later, drawing out-the-door crowds and national media attention.
A Mexican slang term for "little sister," Xoco is certainly small with only 40 seats, so be prepared to wait (or opt for carryout before 10:30 a.m. and after 3 p.m.). Blackboards along the wall educate diners about the food's local origins, with ingredients coming from farms in Illinois and neighboring states as well as from Bayless's own garden.
The resulting menu items fall mostly into two categories: tortas (warm, crusty sandwiches, available after 11 a.m.) and caldos (hearty soups, available after 3 p.m.). Each selection, with most costing between $8 and $12, is a unique blend of Mexican ingredients with a strong emphasis on fresh meats, black beans and a range of chiles and salsas. For early birds, a smaller breakfast menu is served starting at 7 a.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. on Saturdays, featuring egg-based tortas and hard-to-resist fresh churros (three for $3 or $1.25 each, served all day).
Beyond the main courses, Xoco has given equal thought to its drinks, desserts and sides. Choose from a small selection of Mexican and craft beers, wines, Mexican sodas, and freshly brewed coffee and hot chocolate. A few cookies and ice creams are also available, and no Rick Bayless meal would be complete without some of his signature guacamole and just-made chips ($4).
Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: Erica Walkup