I’ve been mildly obsessed with Rick Bayless since I was introduced to Mexico: One Plate at a Time a few years ago by a friend that didn’t have cable and was forced to watch actual quality television programming on PBS. At first glance, Rick Bayless appears to be the whitest white guy to ever whip up a batch of tacos and tamales. He looks nothing like the fabulous Tamale Guy that wanders the bars of Bucktown, peddling his delicious bathtub-made fare, but trust me, Rick Bayless knows how to cook up some mean Mexican food. A longtime fan of Top Chef, I got to know more about Bayless on the first season of Top Chef Masters, which he ultimately won.
Shortly after his victory on Top Chef Masters in 2009, I dragged a group of friends to Xoco, Bayless’s newest Chicago restaurant. This “little sister” restaurant, serving authentic Mexican-inspired street food, has two big sisters – Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, but both are a bit difficult to get into. Since Xoco serves street food (tortas and soups), it’s relatively quick, and the only thing you have to wait for is a space to open up at one of the few tables. My friends and I had an awesome meal of hand-made tortas, chips and guacamole and churros, and I couldn’t wait to eat there again. When my brother came into town on business last week and ended up conveniently staying 2 blocks from the realm of Rick Bayless restaurants, I knew the opportunity had arrived.
I happened to be attending a conference downtown on the same day that my brother got in for work. I’m usually in the ‘burbs for work, so the fact that we were both downtown was a happy coincidence. We met up at his hotel, slammed a few free drinks (Homewood Suites passes out free beer, wine and a full-scale dinner from 5-7 everyday) and made our way over to Xoco. Now, at this point, I had regaled my brother with enough Rick Bayless knowledge to write a verified Wikipedia page on the man. He seemed slightly indifferent to my Rick Bayless love-fest, claiming “he’d never heard anyone talk about a chef so much in my life.” Touché.
We walked over to Xoco, at the corner of Clark and Illinois, me practically skipping and happily spewing Rick Bayless trivia, and my brother nodding and occasionally throwing in an “oh”, “yeah” or “mmhmm” to the mainly one-sided conversation. There didn’t seem to be too long of a line when we got there, but the line can at Xoco can be deceiving, since, if you’re dining in, you must wait for a table to be cleared before you can order. There are only 40 seats available, so this can easily be a 30-45 minute wait just to order. If you’re not hell-bent on soaking in the entire Rick Bayless experience and just want to chow down, it seems like take-out is the way to go.
I knew before even entering the restaurant what my dinner would be, but Colin had a harder time choosing from their menu:
We both chose tortas from the woodburning overn – he finally settled on the Ahogada: golden pork carnitas, black beans, tomato broth, spicy arbol chile sauce and pickled onions. I chose the Pepito: braised Tallgrass shortribs, caramelized onion, artisan Jack cheese, black beans and pickled jalapenos. Last time I was at Xoco, I had the Cubana (a torta from the griddle) with smoked Maple Creek pork loin and bacon, black beans, avocado, artisan Jack cheese, chipotle mustard. The Cubana was excellent, but two of my friends ordered the Pepito last time around, and after a few nibbles of theirs, I knew I’d get one for myself the next time I got a chance. We also got chips and guacamole, an order of churros and a JK Scrumpy’s hard cider, which was by far the best cider I’ve ever had. We amused ourselves in line by watching the chefs in action:
After we ordered, we were seated along the counter on the back wall, and our food was delivered a few minutes later. We’d already gone to town on the chips and guac, but here’s a picture of our meal:
Let me just say that our food was delicious, amazing, incredible and completely satisfying. The shortribs were mouth-watering, and the caramelized onion and pickled jalapeños (nothing like the kind you get on nachos at a sporting event) make a great combination. The bread is crusty (that was my brother’s only complaint – he apparently prefers a softer bread) and holds up nicely to the ingredients. My brother isn’t big on sharing, but he did let me try a bite of his torta, and it was out of this world. It’s served in a bowl of the best-tasting tomato soup I’ve ever come across. It’s smoky, savory and is the perfect dunking complement to the Ahogada torta. Of course, next time I’m at Xoco, I’ll be ordering that :)
Now comes the most exciting part of the meal, and naturally it had something to do with dessert. Since the churros are also hand-made, they don’t deliver them until you’re ready for dessert. I sent my brother up to the front to inquire after our churros, and when he came back, he had a big grin on his face and said these 7 glorious words: “I think Rick Bayless is up there.” I knew my endless lecturing and pointing out Rick Bayless’s picture on his cookbooks would pay off! My brother actually recognized him! I audibly squealed, dug my camera out of my bag, fluffed my hair and scurried up to the counter for my chance to make a complete fool of myself meet my favorite celebrity chef.
Just as my brother reported, Rick Bayless was, in fact, standing at the counter…having an intense conversation with some lady. I sheepishly hung around, waiting for this woman to shut up and let me have my turn with Rick Bayless, but this lady would not stop talking. Now, I like to imagine myself as suave, even a bit sophisticated, but get me around someone who’s appeared on a Bravo reality show and I am just a bumbling idiot. I felt like their conversation could go on for HOURS (ok, I was a bit tipsy at this point, so these minutes were feeling pretty long), so I waited for a pause and then ever-so-smoothly approached Rick Bayless and the mystery lady. I think I managed to get out a combination of these words: “big fan, delicious, food, Top Chef, yum, blog, picture?” but I can’t really be sure because Rick Bayless has an effect on me similar to 8 consecutive shots of Goldschläger. He must have understood some part of that horrifically embarrassing tirade, because I ended up with this:
Yeah, sorry for that, but I don’t want to be subjected to all of you Rick Bayless haters out there. I mean, we’re pretty much like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. Better to remain completely anonymous. I’ve got a LOT of regular readers (6) from all over the world (Chicago), and this blog is already making me uncomfortably famous. For those of you landing here from my links on Facebook, um, ignore the fact that you know me.
Anyway, Rick Bayless was gracious and seemed flattered that I would write up my dining experience on this blog. I can only assume he is my 6th loyal reader…I mean, before I met him, I only had 5.
If you’re in River North and want to pretend you’re a judge on Top Chef Masters, I highly recommend stopping by Xoco for the authentic Rick Bayless experience. The food is amazing, sustainable and ultimately memorable. And, if you’re lucky, you might get to see Rick Bayless doing this: