Mexican Brand-Off: Dining reviews of Mercadito and Rick Bayless’ Xoco

The Bayless empire’s new annex is packed night and day; two blocks away a New York taco import brings the noise

Mercadito's tacos
Digging into the tacos at Mercadito
 

The long line at Xoco gets as much press as the food there. The wait already surpasses the slow creep at Hot Doug’s as the most exasperating in Chicago—my wife completed the Trib’s daily Sudoku and crossword puzzle; I finished an entire Wall Street Journal and The Onion. If it’s any consolation, the superchef Rick Bayless, who pops out from the open kitchen and tries to ignore the masses snapping photos on their cell phones, looks more irritated than you do. The nonstop crowds—so welcome at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo around the corner—seem to be wearing him down at Xoco.

If you make it to the order counter, you’re assigned an uncomfortable stool (or, if you’re lucky, a chair at one of the few tables), whereupon you wait for another quarter hour or so for your food to begin arriving in random order. In no way is Xoco (SHOW-coh, Mexican slang for “little sister”) a fast-food place—nor is it cheap, considering that sandwiches and soups can run $12 each. To go there for lunch, it helps to be unemployed but with money.

I’ve eaten in my share of Mexican zocalos, and as Bayless claims, Xoco incorporates the bold flavors of Mexican street and market food. As at Frontera and Topolobampo, his pure and complex flavors surpass the originals. A reliance on superb artisanal and local ingredients—also true to Mexican traditions—aids immeasurably.

Bayless serves up two categories of tortas, one made with a flattish bread called telera and crisped in a griddle press. The dense and crunchy jamón torta—my favorite of three griddled options—is made with the much-acclaimed Iowa La Quercia prosciutto and Wisconsin Otter Creek Organic Cheddar with avocado, black beans, and chipotle mustard. The second kind of torta is made with crusty sourdough bolillo rolls (both breads custom-designed by Labriola Bakery) baked in Xoco’s wood-burning oven. The best in this larger category is the wood-roasted suckling pig torta seasoned with achiote and pickled red onions; if you can endure the line on Saturday, don’t miss the flabbergasting barbacoa torta special of wood-roasted, red-chile-seasoned goat with avocado. The soup-and-sandwich combo is a classic American lunch, but Xoco puts the sandwich in soup: A halved pork carnitas torta stands upright in a bowl of rich tomato broth with spicy arbol chile sauce. It gets sloppy, like a French dip sandwich; just grab an extra napkin and enjoy.

At exactly 3 p.m.—no sooner, no later—the cooks begin ladling out the full-bore caldos (soups), missing the lunch crowd. Latecomers are rewarded with soul-warming bowls of steaming, spicy goodness. Braised Tallgrass beef short ribs in red chile broth with roasted vegetables and epazote topped with wild arugula will cut through the coldest winter day, as will the knockout pork belly and toasted vermicelli (fideos) with mushrooms and avocado sparked by salsa negra. The seafood soup, flavored with red chile and swimming with shrimp and catfish, proved so delicious with its grilled knob onions that I forgave the one mussel that didn’t open.

Xoco’s instantly famous churros are a shameless tease—fried in full view behind the Clark Street picture window and sprinkled with raw sugar and Mexican cocoa powder. Truth is, other desserts, like the Mexican chocolate hazelnut cookies, are just as delicious. And near the entrance on Illinois Street, an employee grinds Mexican chocolate in the window to make the great, frothy hot chocolate that almost everybody orders: It’s as good as any I’ve had in Oaxaca.

Yes, Xoco’s food is terrific, but until the crowds thin out, I’d rather step over to Frontera Grill for a more relaxed Mexican meal for not much more money. That said, if you’ve got time to kill and money to burn, Xoco is one pain in the ass that’s worth it.

* * *

How loud is Mercadito, the glitzy new Mexican restaurant two blocks away in the former Pomme Rouge spot? So loud that my wife and I were forced to text across the table about the food:

» shrimp & pineapple seviche fine—tomato-guajillo broth really works :-)

» not so much bay scallops w/grapes—scallop flavor lost :-(

» yeah me 2 but mahi-mahi seviche in orange chile de arbol broth ok how’s margarita—besides late :-<

» :*)

» LMAO


So goes Saturday night at Mercadito. The other half of River North’s perfect Mexican storm is a trendy small-plates import. The chef, Patricio Sandoval, and his brother and partner, Alfredo, have three locations in New York and one coming up in Miami, so they are busy, busy. Maybe that’s why the operation seems out of control, despite an energetic waitstaff and a pair of roving managers with headsets (they look like football coaches). One night there were at least three versions of the menu circulating with different food choices and drink prices—and at least as many botched orders and errors on our bill. We might have felt more forgiving had our tequila-based cocktails—as big a deal here as tacos—made it to the table before the appetizers.

Speaking of appetizers, someone is giving way too much thought to guacamole: mango and jicama here, pomegranate seeds and epazote there. Mercadito’s got six variations in all, but the traditional one is the best, which proves a simple truth: Use good avocados and don’t mess with a classic.

The servers’ T-shirts signal the heart of the menu: THE TACO THAT CHANGED MY LIFE and THE SHRIMP TACOS MADE ME WEEP. Sorry, my life remains unchanged, and the shrimp tacos almost made one foodie friend weep—but in disappointment. (I kind of liked them, swathed in chipotle mojo sauce with avocado.) The pork carnitas tacos were a success, and the huitlacoche and wild mushroom tacos with manchego cheese put me in an awfully good mood; that is, until I tasted the awful botana (snack) of delicate baked oysters obliterated by a chorizo and manchego crust.

Mercadito offers only five entrées, but maybe there should be more. The four I tried were among the best dishes in the house. A grilled adobo-marinated chicken was too good to share, and I’m still thinking about the way manchego and Oaxaca cheeses oozed from a fat chile relleno filled with scallops, shrimp, and octopus in roasted tomato and arbol chile salsa. Mercadito plays it smart with desserts, with just a few flans and a killer pumpkin bread pudding with mezcal syrup. Beneath the noise are all the elements for a good restaurant.

» Mercadito: r u listening?


THE SKINNY

MERCADITO
108 W. Kinzie St.; 312-329-9555

MODEL MEAL Huitlacoche and mushroom tacos, seafood chile relleno, bread pudding

TIP The big tequila list includes Siete Leguas, the original maker of Patrón before an American company bought the name and changed the formula.

HOURS Lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch

TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $40
 

XOCO
449 N. Clark St.; 312-334-3688

MODEL MEAL Suckling pig torta or short rib soup, churros, hot chocolate

TIP No takeout during lunch, but get around it by waiting at a barstool for your order and then boxing it up yourself.

HOURS Breakfast, lunch, and dinner Tuesday to Saturday

TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $15 to $20

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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