Rick Bayless’s XOCO is just around the corner from his other restaurants, Frontera and Topolobampo. While the other two are essentially variations on the same restaurant, XOCO stands a little bit apart and offers a more unique dining experience. The restaurant is a quick service eatery – and was recently named the greenest restaurant in Chicago – where you order at a counter and the food is brought to your table. They’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the menu offers Bayless’s takes on favorite Mexican street food and snacks.
Their tortas and caldos (sandwiches and soups) have big fans, but I hit XOCO early in the morning for breakfast. One of the things that I didn’t want to miss out on was the hot chocolate that is their signature dish. They actually take their chocolate from beans to cup right in the kitchen, doing all the roasting, grinding and chocolate-making right where you can watch through the window! So, naturally, the first thing I ordered was a cup of hot chocolate.
To be specific, I ordered the Mexico City Thick, also called Champurrado. This is a very thick, creamy and froth hot chocolate that is lightly spiced with cinnamon. It tastes even better than it looks, but even though it is served in smallish glasses, it takes a little while to get through one serving because it is so rich. It is a fantastic way to start off a cool Chicago morning.
XOCO offers several other chocolate-based drinks, all starting with a shot of their homemade chocolate syrup. This syrup takes like a melted dark chocolate bar, very creamy and with a bittersweet aftertaste. It is almost too much to sip on its own, but it goes very well with coffee, milk and churros, which are XOCO’s other specialty item. Their churros are served hot and fresh, crisp on the outside and tender inside. They are rolled in sugar, with what I thought was a hint of vanilla and cinnamon. The dark chocolate shot made a good dip for the churros and reminded me of the churros I made when I came home from my trip to Spain last year. That said, I think that the Champurrado made an even better dip for the churros, with its milder flavor and complementary spiciness!
The pastry case at XOCO has many options, from cookies to scones, but a savory empanada looked good to me as a breakfast item. I opted for ham and cheese, while it looked good while it was in the case, it far exceeded my expectations. The tender pastry was flavorful and the spicy filling had a great mix of ham, veggies, chilis and a little bit of cheese. The spicy salsa that accompanied it tasted fresh and complex. Served hot, the empanada was not heavy, but was very satisfying. The flavors for the empanadas and other pastries change regularly.
Perhaps my favorite Mexican breakfast food is chilaquiles, a dish made by simmering fried tortilla strips in a spicy sauce and usually served with eggs, chicken or other leftover roasted meat. It’s a very simple and homey dish, but very popular as a way to use up all kinds of leftover foods (tortillas and meat from the night before) and when served as a hangover cure. I couldn’t resist the Wood-Oven Chilaquiles on XOCO’s menu. This version of the dish had a flavorful, but not spicy sauce, and was loaded up with eggs, chicken and cheese, then topped with a bit of salsa. I loved the presentation and the texture that resulted from popping the dish casserole-style into their wood oven. The portion wasn’t huge, but it was also a very hearty dish.
You can order takeout or eat in at the restaurant, choosing from one of their small two-top tables or claiming a couple of chairs at one of the communal tables in the restaurant. The prices are reasonable for filling, flavorful and very well prepared dishes. I’d come back just for the churros and hot chocolate (which are served all day!), but I’d definitely recommend stopping in for breakfast if you’re visiting the area. Next time I’m in town, I’ll try to come during lunch to try one of Bayless’s tortas along with my churros and chocolate!