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Quality Ingredients, Relaxing Atmosphere Await At Xoco Wicker Park

By Lisa White in Food on Aug 28, 2014 7:30PM

After numerous delays Rick Bayless again expanded his empire of quality Mexican cuisine with a Wicker Park outpost of Xoco, his popular eatery known for tortas, caldos and bean-to-cup chocolate. While the River North location is small and only offers counter service, the Wicker Park location is a spacious sit-down affair with a full bar. We stopped by for lunch last week to check out the new space and how the food holds up against the original location.

The first thing you notice about Xoco Wicker Park is how spacious it is. More than double the size of the original Xoco, there is a front and back dining area, a long open kitchen and outdoor seating. The decor is casual, yet inviting. The service was prompt and friendly, if not a little overzealous at times. This is no surprise since Bayless’s Topolobampo has been nominated multiple times for the James Beard Award for outstanding service. In the Bayless world, quality trickles down from the top.

We ordered up the draft raspberry mint margarita, part of the draft cocktail program that is new at the Wicker Park location, and a round of Ale Syndicate’s Municipal, a floral beer with spicy undertones that pairs well with the overall cuisine of Xoco. The margarita was a bit thicker than the usual made-to-order ones at other Bayless establishments, but the flavors were spot on and smooth, the tart fresh raspberry cutting any burn from the tequila with an herbal finish of mint.

We started out with their bacon caramel corn and sikil pak. The sikil pak was like a hummus with acidic notes granted by sour orange, which was delicious with the jicama dipping sticks. Meanwhile the bacon caramel popcorn deferred any cloying sweetness with a nice smokey dash of ancho chili.

For our main course we split the Friday torta special, a chipotle catfish sandwich and the wood-roasted chicken pozole. The thing that makes all of Bayless’s broths (and sauces for that matter) so good is the complexity of flavor that nevers verges into overpowering. Our broth was clean and light, while still having depth from the different chilies. The lime brought a nice burst of acid and the chicken was tender.

That said, we could have used a bit more heat. The spicy factor overall in all our dishes seemed a bit hesitant: barely any habanero in our sikil pak, no peppery heat in our soup and although our sandwich was served with salsa, we had to pour it on pretty heavy to get any real burn going. We know not all dishes are meant to be spicy at Xoco, but the heat level just felt a bit timid, possibly something the chefs are still testing in the new space. The quality of ingredients kept the food flavorful, though. Our chipotle catfish was fried perfectly with a slight crunch. Our red cabbage and watercress salad ended up being more carrots than anything else, but the fish, crunchy fresh bread and light chipotle dressing made up for that.

For dessert we stuck with Xoco’s classic churros, perfectly fried with a soft chewy center. We also tried the strawberry soft-serve topped with cajeta (a goat's milk caramel) and macerated seasonal fruit. The soft-serve itself was fresh and light, nothing like the metallic, fake flavor that plagues many fruity soft-serves. The tiny cup ended up overflowing, with the sticky cajeta trapped at the bottom and the tart fresh fruit bouncing over the sides. It would have been nice to have more cajeta on the top but the flavors worked well together.

The best surprise was when we took some of the leftover bacon caramel corn and popped a few kernels onto our bite of ice cream. It gave a bit of crunchy texture while the smoky chili and salty bacon really brought out the sweet strawberry flavor. We’d gladly take a bowl of the soft-serve alone with a dish of popcorn on the side next visit. Someone needs to add this to the menu stat.

Xoco Wicker Park still has a bit of footing to find, but overall the quality of ingredients, the attentive service and relaxing atmosphere make it the perfect place for a slightly upscale lunch, dinner or an afternoon snack and beer in Wicker Park.