I balked when I first saw that Rick Bayless was serving $12 sandwiches at his “street food” spot Xoco. Sure, they were cheaper than a Frontera Grill entrée, and the smoky pork was enveloped by the best bread I’d tasted in the city. But you can score a torta for half the price at many local taquerías, including my favorite: the Cemita milanesa at Cemitas Puebla in Humboldt Park. Is Xoco worth the extra six bucks? You be the judge.

Cochinita Pibil
449 N. Clark St.; 312-334-3688
Cemita Milanesa

3619 W. North Ave.; 773-772-8435
Labriola Baking Company hand-formed, 12-hour-fermentation, proofed, and baked rustic bolillo. The baker, Rich Labriola, says that Xoco probably pays more than double for its bread compared with a normal sandwich shop, “but that long rise promotes acidity, flavor, and aroma.”
Crispy, sesame-encrusted, single-proofed hand-formed cemita rolls made by a Humboldt Park baker that Tony Anteliz, the owner of Cemitas Puebla, refuses to identify. After Cemitas went from ordering 50 buns a day on weekends to 400, the baker was able to hire another person.
Landrace-Duroc suckling pigs from Maple Creek Farm in Waukesha, Wisconsin, fed sustainably farmed soy and corn. Semi-confined but allowed to roam regularly, the pigs are butchered at Frontera Grill, the meat rubbed in achiote and other spices, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-cooked seven hours in a wood-fired oven. “We pay several dollars more per pound [than for factory pork],” says Shaw Lash, Xoco’s sous-chef.


Butchered and portioned USDA-inspected pork loin chops from Carniceria Jimenez in West Humboldt Park. They’re coated in a milk base; seasoned with garlic, onion, clove, other spices, and bread crumbs; then fried and finished on a flat-top griddle. “I know my stuff isn’t organic,” says Anteliz. “Carniceria gets the meat from different packing plants in Chicago, and they hand cut it for me every day. The people who eat here know good meat.”
Habanero salsa. The “liquid fire” of Xoco, displaying citrus notes, is made from fresh Mexican fire-roasted habaneros blended with garlic and salt.
Spicy molasses-flavored chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Anteliz’s father flies to Oaxaca to buy cinnamon, oregano, thyme, evaporated sugar cane, and morita chipotles from markets in the city of Puebla. Anteliz mixes the peppers with garlic, salt, onions, white vinegar, and fermented pineapple brine and simmers them for seven hours.
Black beans, grown by Three Sisters Garden in Kankakee. Inspected, watered, and weeded by hand, they’re fresher and don’t require overnight soaking. (They’re four times the cost of commodity beans.) Xoco cooks them with toasted avocado leaves and water and mixes them with lard. The red onions, sustainably grown at Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo, get harvested by Lloyd Nichols and his sons. “They are passing information to the next generation,” Bayless says. “And that’s powerful if we want to grow good farming practices for the future.”

Queso Oaxaca, mozzarella-like string cheese made by hand in the Oaxacan town of Chipilo. In addition to the plane ticket to Mexico, money is spent on tipping workers and paying for bus rides around Oaxaca. The nonorganic California or Mexican avocados come from Carniceria Jimenez or from the International Produce Terminal, a Heart of Chicago market. Papalo, a green, citrus-perfumed herb, is grown in the Antelizes’ backyard.
Bayless’s food and labor costs run 67 to 70 percent of the total sandwich price. (National averages are 60 to 65 percent.) Bayless’s employees, 60 percent of whom have worked for him for five years or more, enjoy a profit-sharing program and an annual trip to Mexico. His Frontera Farmer Foundation develops and supports local farmers.

When Anteliz mentioned that he buys organic milk for his daughter, I asked if he considered organic ingredients for his customers. “Yes,” he said, then he pointed to a Mexican family in the restaurant. “But how do you do that without insulting those hard-working people? It’s a struggle for them to be here, and I want to feed this community.”


“Several of you have commented that Xoco should be cheaper. I can do it by buying avg commodity food, not local, organic. Do u think I should?”
–Rick Bayless, Twitter, October 21, 2009


Illustrations: Justyna Palka