Rick Bayless's casual restaurant faces the best kind of problem.
Through no fault of his own, Rick Bayless was making my life difficult. It’s not that I didn’t want to eat at XOCO. I did. Really. A lot. But to do so was going to take a healthy chunk of time. Granted, XOCO being the most tweeted opening that Chicago has ever seen—due in part to Bayless’s own assiduous tweeting—I at least knew what I was in for, wait-wise. And I’d no more criticize Bayless for being incredibly talented and personable than I would blame him for the hordes of fans lining up down the block, desirous not so much of a torta as a glimpse of the chef-star. It’s not Bayless’s fault he won Top Chef Masters.
So it must have been in a fit of frenzy and perhaps insanity that I made the last-minute decision to head over to XOCO one weekday around noon, thinking I would just grab a torta and get back to the office in an hour. No sooner did I survey the line than I promptly did a 180. (Well, not before unsuccessfully checking for a bar seat at Frontera Grill. A girl can hope.) I subsequently returned multiple times, but never on a whim. No, each later visit was planned in advance, with accompanying diners briefed on the possibility of a multi-hour meal.
And it’s that planning, deliberation and buzz, that feels, ultimately, at odds with what Bayless is trying to do here. XOCO is intentionally, expressly casual: Much of the seating is bar stools that stare smack-dab into a wall. (A generous interpretation of this setup: It’s one of the most comfortable places in the city to eat alone.) And then there’s the food, which is very, very good.
But what it’s not is subtle. The ahodaga torta slaps you across the face with acidity and salt, then coats your mouth with pork carnitas, at turns fatty, at others crisp. Eating the large, crusty wood-fired tortas is a visceral experience and by no small measure challenging—which is perhaps why the ahodaga stood out: It rests in a bowl of arbol-chile sauce that transforms it into something of a Mexican French-dip. The jamon torta (this one from the griddle, not the oven) starts off easier, with crunchy yet softer bread, but its combination of La Quercia prosciutto and sharp cheddar proves seriously aggressive. These are sandwiches that you don’t so much eat as clobber. Caldos, served after 3pm, are no less bold: red-chile soup packed thick with hunks of short-ribs; chicken pozole that’s toothsome and rich and crunchy.
The only thing that’s presented with any sort of ceremony is the hot chocolate, made on-site from the beans and poured tableside. From the thinner, spicy Aztec to the perfectly creamy Ultra to the indulgent Barcelona, it’s the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had—even if mine ended up filled with bitty churro flecks. Which is why if you’re looking for me, I’ll be there at breakfast, when the place is practically empty, and I can have my hot chocolate and a baguette slice topped simply with tomato sauce and a poached egg right there—then take my churros to go. (Breakfast, as of this writing, is the only meal with a carryout option.) It’s quick. It’s easy. Just as I—and I think Bayless, too—thought it should be.