Anyone putting off a visit to Xoco because of the daunting lines that have become an unintentionally ironic hallmark of Rick Bayless's "quick-serve" Mexican street-food joint should know that the Chef Who Can Do No Wrong provides plenty to think about during the wait. For optimists there's engrossing, if agonizing, reading material—the chalkboard menu hung high on the wall lists a half dozen caldos and nine or ten tortas (from the wood-fired oven or the griddle), all made with bounty from the local boutique farms Bayless has championed throughout his ascent as well as his own considerable tillage. And action fans can thrill to the battery of line cooks frenetically constructing meals a few arm's lengths away, amid the spellbinding aroma of fresh-ground cocoa beans.
Still, there's a certain variety of grump who no matter what is going to stand in line, arms folded, and ask himself, dammit, is there nowhere else in town to turn for a comparable ham-and-cheese torta under $11.50?
The answer is no. There is nothing like Xoco's jamon torta, griddled flat and layered with La Quercia prosciutto, seasonally variable organic Wisconsin cheddar, black beans, avocado, and chipotle mustard. Add a fried egg for a dollar and it's a big, salty, expensive mess, a delicious cultural analogue to the signature burger at Kuma's Corner.
The question of whether you could be eating more authentically—and cheaply—in Pilsen or Little Village or at the Maxwell Street Market should be off the table. With his books and TV series, Bayless certainly has done more than anyone to teach America about real Mexican cuisine, but his restaurants are another matter entirely. Complaints about his credibility are invariably, and spuriously, rooted in objections to higher prices (or worse, to his being a gringo). The prices are justified by a singular dedication to superior products. An extreme but appropriate example: Xoco's irregularly offered headcheese and smoked tongue torta, made with naturally raised pork supplied by Wisconsin's Maple Creek Farm. The warm crusty bread coddles thin, alternately chilled and warm sheets of offaly bits, dressed with spicy sour pickled vegetables, tart creamy goat cheese, and earthy black beans. It's the same sort of symphonic arrangement of colors, textures, temperatures, and flavors that a good fresh banh mi has. It's a shame more people won't hurdle their squeamishness to give it a chance—the day I ordered it, I was told I was the only one who had.
Even after the lines die down, no one will ever just pop into Xoco for soup and a sandwich without a different sort of struggle: the caldos, served only after 3 PM, are all more than meals in themselves, deep and substantial soups brimming with the same sort of meats available on the tortas but also vegetables, chile, avocado, and lime and maybe noodles or dumplings to boot. The brick-red short rib chile soup is filled with potatoes and chayote, and the tender chunks of braised beef just hold their integrity in the ballsy, well-balanced broth. The pork belly fideos, nutty vermicelli with thick squares of fatty pork, are too rich to slurp down in one sitting.
The third wave in Xoco's attack is the freshly fried churros, best accompanied by bean-to-cup hot chocolate lightly spiced with chile or spiked with cow or almond milk. Though these are available all day long, they're the reason I still haven't gotten too deep into the breakfast menu, which may be the most varied set of offerings all day—empanadas, pastries, breakfast tortas, savory bread pudding.
Bayless hasn't built the protoype for heaven's fonda. The dining area is cramped and awkwardly arranged, and a good number of seats face directly into a wall. But as of October 14, the staff—which already deals admirably with a complicated ordering and seating system—had things under control to the extent that takeout service had been introduced at breakfast and after 3 PM. If you do want to eat in, mid- to-late afternoon is an expeditious window.
Could chef Patricio Sandoval possibly have anything to teach Chicagoans about Mexican food? You might think so: he grew up in the kitchen of his father's Acapulco restaurant, Madeiras. But by moving in just blocks away from the Bayless oasis, he blatantly invites comparison, and by comparison his loud, clubby shared-plates restaurant is a carpetbagger.
The tacos, which made this minichain's reputation back in New York, are for the most part merely competently executed, though the battered mahimahi tacos deserve notice—light crispy fish bits with slaw and chipotle aioli—and the pastor, savory porky chunks counterbalanced by sweet pineapple, come close to the elusive ideal. The Ben & Jerry's-style guacamoles are successful, chunky with add-ins like pumpkin, pomegranate, and plantains. And the salsas are unusually refined, silky smooth and distinctive—a grilled tomato and peanut number was memorable.
But I can see fights breaking out among hungry friends confronted with the stingy portion sizes. Salsas arrive as mere dribbles in glass dishes so small and shallow they defy the incursion of tortilla chips. Same goes with the minuscule scoops of guac and ceviche, and the tiny tacos, at four for $12.50, are the very definition of poor value.
Two of Mercadito's most-hyped features have been the all-tequila cocktail list, devised by the celebrated beverage-consulting duo the Tippling Brothers, and the all-star cast of local mixologists recruited to work behind the stick. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, such as the complex, smoky, Averna-tinged, mezcal-based Tres Coops, their talents are wasted mixing up concoctions whose subtleties are lost in primal sweetness.
Other menu categories include a handful of entree-size platos fuertos (including a sloppy seafood-stuffed chile relleno); botanas (snacks) like the oversalted mushroom tostadas, and sides, including a mushy cheese-blanketed arroz verde and a grilled elote that no one who understood anything about Chicago would try to get away with. Not even Rick Bayless can justify $4.50 for corn on a stick.