I’ve been recommending Rick Bayless’s restaurant XOCO to people for two years but had never actually had the food. Its churros and sandwiches have graced a variety of “Chicago’s Best” lists, its food pictures have made my mouth water and reviews are universally high, so I felt comfortable suggesting it if people asked. However, as my friends and I were deciding where to go out to eat in celebration of the end of a long week, I decided now was the time to give my recommendations some credibility and scope out XOCO myself.
XOCO doesn’t take reservations, so when I walked in at 7:30 on a Friday night and saw a line of people, I became slightly worried. However the line wasn’t as imposing as it seemed; customers were waiting in line to order and pay at the front — much like a fast-food joint only the process was taking slightly longer because people were relaxing and spending more time with their meals. The servers offer to bring you drinks in line, allowing you to sip cocktails while chatting with your friends or perusing the menu (I didn’t do this, but it seemed like a cool option).
The wait ended up being only 20 minutes (not bad for a Friday night, especially in River North) and was actually beneficial for someone who is extremely indecisive with food. Do I go for soup since it’s cold, or should I opt for one of XOCO’s renowned sandwiches? Veggies or meat? Luckily, the people behind the counter are extremely helpful in answering questions, and when I asked whether the guy taking my order recommended the Authentic or the Almendrado Hot Chocolate, he grabbed me samples to try before I decided.
Once everyone has decided, each person orders and pays separately, a convenient feature that eliminates any issues with splitting checks. Each party is assigned a number as a whole, so your food will be brought out together, combining fast food convenience with the feel and delivery of a normal restaurant. All that was left for us to do was grab a table and wait for our food to come.
From here on out, the experience no longer resembled fast food. Our meal was brought to us in standard waves: the Yucatecan Pumpkinseed Dip for an appetizer; the Pork Belly Vermicelli Soup, Vegetable Soup and Smokey Garlic Shrimp Tortas for entrées; and the famous churros for dessert. I also got the authentic hot chocolate, and one of my friends got the Almendrado.
All of the dishes had unique flavors and fresh ingredients. I think my favorite dish was our appetizer: it had a slight pumpkin flavor, but it wasn’t overwhelming. The jicama complemented it nicely and provided a welcome contrast to the chips. The entree I got was the Pork Belly Vermicelli Soup, and I was more than satisfied; the broth wasn’t too salty, there were lots of vegetables to give it texture and flavor and the pork belly almost melted in my mouth. The hot chocolate was rich but not overwhelming, and all I can say for the churros is that I understand why they have so much hype (you should try them).
Through this experience, I discovered that I hadn’t been leading people astray for the past two years by directing them to XOCO: the food was universally delicious and interesting, the ambiance was casual and relaxed and the servers were friendly and helpful. This place was especially fun to go to with friends because we were able to sample more items. I will definitely continue to recommend it.
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