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Good Food, Long Lines Make XOCO A Mixed Bag

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Oct 23, 2009 4:00PM

Thanks largely to his win on "Top Chef Masters," Rick Bayless is riding an unprecedented wave of popularity that shows no signs of cresting soon. At present, Bayless is arguably the most recognizable chef on the planet, if not the United States, putting in 15-hour days between the kitchens of Topobolampo, Frontera Grill and XOCO. Anticipation for XOCO, Bayless's paean to Mexican street food, was already at a fever pitch before his winning "Top Chef Masters" turn with his usage of Twitter. While we were able to get in and out on XOCO's opening day — XOCO opened on the same day as the Oprahcalypse on Michigan Avenue — subsequent days haven't been so fortunate. Diners heading to Bayless's Frontera compound on Clark Street have been subjected to an average 2-hour wait time to any of the restaurants.

That wait doesn't seem to phase XOCO's customers, many of whom have their cameras and cell phones at the ready to snap a picture of the gracious and accommodating Bayless whenever he appears. Sure, there's that occasional grumpus who's ready to slice you with a spork if he thinks you're cutting in line. But, overall, the waits are patient. They have to be when you're combining folks legitimately excited about the food with acolytes to the "TCM"-fueled cult of personality. The latter group will eventually run off to the next red-hot chef and restaurant opening.

Which leaves the food. The proof, as they say, is always in the pudding. There have been moments in the weeks since XOCO's opening that even Bayless himself has wondered if the quality of its menu can match his detailed standards. So what should you expect if you head to XOCO? Think of Chipotle if Bayless owned that chain and focused on tortas. With seating for 49, XOCO was designed as a quick stop. The food, however, is anything but. This is classic comfort food, intended to savor.

XOCO's menu focuses on tortas, soups, churros and cocoas made in house, bean-to-cup. As with Frontera and Topo, Bayless is sourcing local for XOCO's ingredients. Breads for tortas are made per Bayless's specs from Labriola Bakery, using a fermented bolillo recipe that gives the bread a pronounced flavor similar to sourdough. Other farms and vendors include Tallgrass Beef, Grunthorp Farm, La Quercia, Spence Farm, Seedling Orchard and Three Sisters Farm. With all this focus on quality ingredients, a XOCO torta isn't cheap. prices range anywhere from $7.50 - $12. You can get a less expensive torta at any taqueria, but few will be as good.

Most of the tortas are made in a woodburning oven, giving them a crispness at the ends while holding in the sandwich filling. Cochinita pibil made from wood-roasted suckling pig seasoned with achiote, is a revelation of flavor. Use the habanero salsa that comes with this torta sparingly, otherwise you'll mute the sweetness of that torta's pickled red onions and black beans. XOCO's breakfast torta, an open-faced mélange of poached eggs and tomato broth, is another winner and one of Bayless's lighter offerings. Our favorite torta so far has been the one with head cheese and beef tongue. Bayless only offers it occasionally; he told us that he wasn't certain if customers would embrace testa or tongue. The soups (available after 3 p.m. daily) are served in bowls large enough for two people to make a meal. Indiscriminate omnivores we are, we ironically can't get enough of XOCO's vegetable and black bean soup, a hearty broth teeming with woodland mushrooms, zucchini, spinach, avocado and serrano.

So far, the early MVPs of XOCO's menu have been the churros and cocoas. The churros are easily the best we've ever had, with a dusting of cinnamon and sugar that will have you forgetting the pudding-filled phalluses served elsewhere. Paired with either the Barcelona or almendrada (almond), XOCO's churros are one of the best things we've eaten all year, worth the 2-hour wait to eat in. Better yet, order a couple to go with a cocoa and you're in and out of XOCO in 20 minutes. Another 5 minute walk to Merchandise Mart and you can even sit down to enjoy your haul.

It should also be noted that Bayless and his staff have done a commendable job in dealing with the long lines and attendant gapers block for all three restaurants that's come with the post-"Top Chef" hype. XOCO is an homage to street food; we say you should order takeout and enjoy it outside.