January 19, 2012

Chicago, part one

Cliches don't bother me. They're actually comforting in a way, like little pieces of evidence that prove I'm not alone.  See, I've been teased my entire life for being a whiner.  This might bother me if the whole 'squeaky wheel' cliche didn't exist.  But it does, and it cements my whininess into a self-proclaimed usefulness.  Yes, I whine.  And guess what?  I often get my way. 

A few months ago I whined about not getting to go to Chicago.  *squeak squeak*

Lo and behold, in December I got my wish.  Darling husband and I stole away for a weekend to my favorite city in this country.  *grease grease*

hello, city.

Though we were there just 53 short hours, we managed to do some serious eating.  Enough that I feel compelled to spread this out over a post or three. 

I'm dedicating this post to our first meal there.  Every time I go to Chicago I run straight for one of this man's restaurants.  Chef Rick Bayless is responsible for some of the best bites of food I've ever put in my mouth, and I'm so thankful his authentic, delicious style of Mexican food is one that is accessible, both to my palate and wallet. 

Though it was difficult to stray from Frontera Grill, we popped around the corner to XOCO.  Holy goodness, am I glad we did.  The menu is succinct, but every offering is as enticing as the next, making it difficult to decide.  Thankfully we were in a celebratory mood and opted to order many things. 

Always a sucker for avocado, my husband insisted on starting with the guacamole and house made chips.  The guac was fresh and zesty, and the chips were stellar - flecked generously with salt and a squeeze of lime.  Two salsas - tomatilla and 3-chile - rounded out the offering. 

Though the torta menu was impressive, the burst of fresh, cold air in downtown Chicago pushed us straight for the caldos - piping hot meal-in-a-bowl soups.  My husband got the pork belly vermicelli, which was a heaping bowl of rich broth laden with toasted noodles, woodland mushrooms, zucchini, avocado, salsa negra, and crispy-tender pork belly.  Though mild in spice, the complex flavors were worthy of an audible 'mmm' between each slurping bite.


I was looking for some serious heat, and was advised to order the carnitas.  Thank goodness.  The slow-cooked pork carnitas were nestled in a gloriously spicy bowl of green broth made with roasted serrano chile.  It was filled to the brim with goodies, including handmade potato masa dumplings, avocado, fresh arugula and chayote - a squash I had never tried before.  Hands down, this bowl of food is something I will crave frequently for the rest of my life.

If you know me, you know I live for dessert.  I could, and often do, eat it after every meal.  At XOCO, we opted for a bit of hot and cold.  We started with a bowl of homemade Mexican vanilla bean soft serve, topped with maple bacon pecan streusel and salted caramel sauce.  Did you get that?  Maple bacon pecan streusel and salted caramel sauce

We wrapped things up with a cup of, well, heaven.  The Mexico City thick bean-to-cup chocolate (champurrado) changed my standards for hot chocolate forever.  It was barely sweet, incredibly thick and pudding-like, and coated your mouth like a hug.  When I tipped up the cup, I had to wait several seconds for the drink to leisurely roll down the side before it got to my mouth.  This decadent drink is made with love - the beans are ground by hand, and it's also mixed to that perfect thickness by hand.   

As we were leaving, we stopped at the big picture window to watch the kitchen team assemble empanadas - again, by hand - and I wish I had returned to try them.  Next time...

This will forever be a fantastic food memory for me.  It was such a good experience that I have almost nothing to whine about.  Here's the thing: while in line, I looked up to see Chef Bayless himself standing in the restaurant.  Honestly, I was so hungry that I wanted to order first, then see about meeting him.  Big mistake - he popped in the back and he didn't return.  Chef Bayless, if you happen to lay eyes on this, thank you for your sharing your gift.  The food was truly incredible. 


  1. I love Chicago so very much. It's been almost 2 years since I've been there, which is the longest I've ever gone between visits in the last 15 years.

    But I have a trip planned for May, so this Maple bacon pecan streusel with salted caramel sauce is on my list of MUSTS!

  2. Ooh, I'm going to Chicago soon and we're actually going to XOCO! Can't wait to try the hot chocolate!