Some people sell their soul to the devil. Rick Bayless sold his soul to Montezuma for all of the Mexican cooking secrets coupled with none of the revenge. Frontera and Topolobampo might be his iconic restaurants that have been holding it down in River North since the neighborhood’s gritty days, but Xoco is the most welcoming of the three spots that sit side-by-side.
Instead of a more formal and modern take on Mexican food like Frontera and Topolobampo, Xoco is a much more casual place. It’s still a modern take on Mexican favorites, but street food favorites like tortas (sandwiches), caldos (soups), and desserts that are tough to turn down, particularly churros. And now that Xoco has been around for a few years, it’s no longer a madhouse during normal lunch and dinner hours, so you can come in for a quick bite solo or with a couple others when you want. That’s not to say it won’t be crowded on a weekday at noon, but it’s always manageable.
And a manageable scene at Xoco is what you want, because it’s meant to be casual, easy, and rather quick. Order and pay in line, and if you’re eating there, make sure to remember your assigned number that corresponds to a counter or table seat in the back. It feels like a mess of a system, but the staff always figures things out, even when we move our little number to a different table because we’re selfish and sit where we want.
There aren't a lot of good, casual restaurants in River North that don't involve being overly health conscious, and that's where Xoco saves the day. No saving from Montezuma needed.
Probably the most popular item at Xoco, and for good reason. A pork carnitas sandwich with black beans and pickled onions that comes submerged in a tomato-arbol chile broth. Think of it like soup and a sandwich, but the sandwich comes in the soup.
Braised short ribs with caramelized onion, Jack cheese, black beans, and pickled jalapeños. The jalapeños give it a nice touch.
Wood-roasted suckling pig, achiote, black beans, pickled onion, and habanero. Another one of our go-to orders.
Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, Xoco does an excellent take on a Cuban. Pork loin, bacon, black beans, avocado, spicy morita, jack cheese, and chipotle mustard are all grilled together to make a great sandwich.
Is it Tuesday? If so, you're in luck, because this carne asada special is good stuff. It's not a crazy sandwich, but the steak coupled with woodland mushrooms, homemade crema, and Xoco's great salsa verde go together nicely.
Whatever your childhood version of chicken soup is, that's this. Chicken pozole with big pieces of sweet pozole corn, chicken, chile, and lime. It's big and comforting.
If you want a stew with a little more flavor and kick, this is a great option. Blue shrimp, mussels, catfish, potatoes, and other veggies come in this spicy red chile broth.
Order them all. Or at least order one, and maybe the one drizzled in chocolate.
All of the desserts are great, and the flan cake is no exception.