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February 5, 2010

Bayless's Xoco

Rick Bayless is pretty fly for a white guy.

He was born in Oklahoma to a family for whom barbecue was the preferred method of cooking anything and everything. He worked at his family’s grocery store, joined the Boy Scouts, and played baseball. He even received a doctorate in Anthropological Linguistics from the University of Michigan.

Despite having absolutely no Mexican heritage or formal culinary training, he has somehow become the most prominent figure in contemporary Mexican cuisine.

Say what?!

Simply put, Bayless did his damn research. After spending six years living, studying and, of course, eating in Mexico, he realized there was more to Mexican food than just rice and beans. Coming back to Chicago with a completely new perspective on the country’s cuisine, he proceeded to open his signature Frontera Grill and Topolobampo—the cornerstone of upscale Mexican food in the U.S.

And now more than 20 years down the line, after numerous James Beard Awards (the Oscars of cooking, so to speak), cookbooks, and even a Top Chef Masters victory…what does Rick Bayless do? Open a hole-in-the-wall joint with an unpronounceable name right next to his other two restaurants. He’s become a glorified street food vendor.

But, oh, how glorified he and his little shack Xoco are.

Xoco is Rick Bayless’s ode to the amazing and diverse street food of Mexico. The emphasis is on tortas: white bread sandwiches stuffed with meat, cheese, beans, and salsa, and more meat, and peppers, and avocados, and even more meat…. Hot dogs and pretzels they are not. But if such meaty goodness does not suit your tastes, there are also salads and caldos, hearty soups featuring many of the same ingredients.

Keeping with the street vendor tradition, the place is tiny; it only seats around 40 at a time. Understandably, a Saturday night dinner led to about an hour wait. But even standing in line is an experience within itself. The ambiance is warm and energetic, a welcome break from the cold that you may take for granted until you have to leave. As the line snakes its way to the ordering counter, you get to experience the full scope of the kitchen; from the wood oven, to the griddle, to the wonderful deep fryer that pumps out churro after churro, and finally to the corner where all the chocolate is cut up and ground into powder. My party ordered some freshly made chips and guacamole while we waited. The freshness of the chips was actually noticeable, and the guacamole had a nice kick to it—a nice amuse-bouche to whet our appetites for the glory that was to come.

I had the privilege of tasting two of Bayless’s incredible torta creations. The Jamón with fried egg was a warm, gooey mess of avocado, cheddar, mustard, and egg yolk that perfectly complemented the crispy white bread that valiantly absorbed all of the juices. The Prosciutto Picante had just the right amount of heat, mostly adding a nice smokiness and bite to the sandwich. A friend’s Ahodaga, pork carnitas in a spicy tomato broth, was just as delicious. The pork carnitas, coupled with pickled onions, had the perfect blend of savory and sweetness to stand up against the spicy broth.

The coup de grace of the meal was a delicate serving of churros and hot chocolate. The freshly fried (if there is such a thing) churros were warm and spongy—perfect for dipping into an assortment of exotic hot chocolates. The Aztec hot chocolate had an interesting water base that gave it a very light texture that worked perfectly to highlight the allspice that gives the drink its signature taste. The Barcelona version was milk-based, incredibly viscous and thick, yet incredibly sweet and creamy. We also tried a flan atop a chocolate base that, besides being quite tasty, also showcases the versatility of flan as more than just a stand-alone dessert.

Oh, and did I mention that this feast was under $20? Frontera Grill and Topolobampo are definitely a bit on the pricey side, so this is certainly the cheapest way to get a taste of Rick Bayless.

After the meal, the word that kept coming to my mind was “refreshing,” both in the literal and figurative sense. The meal may sound heavy and dense, but it was actually a very clean affair that effectively masked the caloric massacre that had just taken place. The food was also a much welcome departure from the misconception of Mexican cooking that is so endemic in our society. On some subconscious level, I had felt that I had done an ethical deed by consuming this food. Through my overindulgence, I was paying tribute to thousands of years of tradition.

Ultimately, Xoco serves to exemplify the fact that Rick Bayless is a gastronomic one-upper. He has encountered Mexican culture and cuisine. He has embraced it. He has perfected it. A culinary veni, vidi, vici.