5 August 2011

Breakfast at XOCO, Chicago – Restaurant Review

Rick Bayless is a culinary legend in Chicago. He is one of the great champions of Mexican food in the US and has written six books on the subject. His Chicago restaurants have become perennial favourites and are always packed. Today his empire spans restaurants, as well as books, TV, food products, and a charitable foundation to support small sustainable farms. Bayless's food is also apparently a favourite of President Obama's, and his name was even rumoured to be on the short-list for the position of White House Executive Chef.

The previous year I had eaten at Bayless's Michelin-starred gourmet Mexican restaurant, Topolobampo. It opened my eyes to a world of Mexican food beyond the ubiquitous Tex-Mex rubbish we tend to find in Europe. It was a world of subtly layered flavours and creative cooking. His other main restaurant in Chicago is Frontera Grill, located next to Topolobampo. It opened in 1987 and was his very first restaurant venture (he also has smaller quick-service venues in O'Hare airport and Macy's department store).

Completing the trio of restaurants is Xoco (pronounced "sho-co"), Bayless's casual eatery, which opened in September 2009. Its name derives from the Mexican slang for "little sister", and this 40-seat all-day restaurant is where you will find Mexican street food favourites. Xoco doesn't take reservations and I've heard the queues can get pretty big, so get there early to avoid waiting too long. I was there just before 9am on a weekday and it was fairly quiet.

After making an attempt to eat at Xoco on a Monday, only to discover they are closed on Sundays and Mondays (doh!), I was up bright and early the next day to try their breakfast menu, which is served up to 10am. During lunch and dinner you will find a range of tortas (sandwiches) that have been toasted in the wood-burning oven as well as meal-in-a-bowl caldos. However, I was here for breakfast and Mexican-style breakfast was a first for me so I super excited to try it out.
The interior of the restaurant is fairly spartan, but pleasant enough; this isn't meant to be a place to linger over your meal. We place our orders at the counter and take a seat. With us are mugs of hot chocolate that we couldn't resist ordering. At this point I should mention that this isn't any ol' mug of warm Nesquik. Oh, no siree! Xoco roast their own cocoa beans onsite, grind them and then mix the resulting paste with sugar, milk or water. The end result is an ambrosial dark brown liquid that tastes heavenly.

There are five different hot chocolates available and you can choose between drinks made with water, milk, almond milk, or with chilli & allspice. However, I opted for an authentic champurrado ($3.25). This thick hot chocolate drink is made by blending Xoco's ground cocoa paste with water, sugar, fresh masa (corn dough), and a touch of cinnamon. It's served in a small mug, but is sooo thick that a little goes a very long way indeed. You don't know whether to eat it or drink it. The taste is simply wonderful though: full-flavoured chocolate that has a fresh and bright note to it with a gentle hint of warm spiciness.

The first dish to arrive was churros ($3.75), which is basically deep-fried dough, sort of like long doughnuts. These had been dusted with sugar and cinnamon and served with a side of homemade chocolate syrup. They tasted great, although their texture was a bit too chewy and tough. The accompanying chocolate syrup was rendered redundant given that we had our mugs of delicious champurrado to dip the churros into.
Our main dishes arrived next. I ordered a dish of huevos rancheros ($7.50), a classic Mexican breakfast dish. Here, two fried eggs were served on corn tortillas with black beans, roasted tomato-serrano pepper sauce and topped with onions and crumbly fresh homemade cheese. It was a hearty and comforting dish; just the sort of breakfast you need for the morning after the night before. The homemade cheese gave a fresh acidic tang, and the tomato sauce had a mild spicy kick to it, although it was perhaps a little too watery for my liking.

My companion's dish of chilaquiles ($6.50) was another traditional Mexican breakfast speciality. It comprised of a small cocotte of tortilla chips, roasted tomato-serrano sauce, onions, cheese, and scrambled egg (it can also be ordered with chicken) that had been cooked in the wood-burning oven. I snuck a bite and loved the combination of flavours and textures. I particularly liked the way the sauce soaked into the tortilla chips turning them into soft intensely-flavoured bites.   
Other breakfast offerings at Xoco include torreja (a sort of French toast served with maple syrup and bacon-pecan sprinkles), chorizo-egg tortas, a variety of breakfast empanadas (a savoury stuffed pastry), Mexican bizcocho (scone), toasted bolillo (a type of Mexican bread) served with the alarmingly titled accompaniment of "Rare Bird Preserves", which I assume is a brand name rather than Imperial Woodpecker jam. For the more health conscious among you there is also organic yoghurt with Mexican-style granola, but I can't imagine why you'd order that given the other infinitely more tempting options on the menu.

Breakfast at Xoco was a new experience for me. Like at Topolobampo, I had my eyes opened to a new type of cuisine. The food was delicious, fresh and fantastic value. This may have been my first Mexican-style breakfast, but it's certainly not going to be my last.

Food:         7 / 10
Service:      8 / 10
Ambiance:  7 / 10

XOCO on Urbanspoon


  1. This kind of fare is what Rick Bayless is known for. but he ruffled aces feathers in Los Angeles with the opening of Red O by insinuating that Los Angeles did not have any good Oaxacan eats. Not a smart comment. GREG

  2. If you are in chicago and like mexican inspired food I would highly suggest Big Star in Wicker park, it is phenomenal. Also I lived in Copenhagen for year and am half Swedish so love your blog for highlighting great nordic restaurants.