Continuing my birthday celebration, now entering the 3rd week, Senorita Nancia, el madre de Toddrico, came into our fine state of Illinois and the land of Metergate for our get together. We dined at Topolobampo that last time she came in, so today our first stop was Xoco.
When you first walk into Xoco, you basically are in a queing area, and the person in charge will explain the process and provide you with an estimated wait time. Depending on the crowd, it could be a very long wait, or a relatively short one. In our case, we were told it would be 5-10″. That time is well spent looking at the menu. If you’re not up for squinting at the chalkboard if you’ve logged in far too many hours on the computer, then just to the right of where we were there is a window sill with menus.
When you get to the end of the line, where the man with the hat is (in the first photo below), you give your order to the cashier and you need to pay for it then. If you order a meal and dessert and a hot beverage, she’ll ask you if you’d like your coffee or hot chocolate with or after your meal. We arrived there at around 11:20 AM, which meant we actually started eating around 11:35 or so, and opted to have our coffees and chocolate delivered with dessert. By the time we were ready for dessert, the place was packed and we had a bit of a wait for the beverages, so much that Senorita Nancia commented that we should have asked for them with our meal.
Also, if you’re not up for having to keep getting out of your seat, make sure that you find the flatware area and stock up before you find a table, because the personnel who bring your meal do not bring you your flatware. When you first enter Xoco, when occupancy allows, the greeter gives you a number on a piece of paper. After you’ve paid, found your flatware and navigated yourself to a table, you need to put the number on the metal stand and face it out so that as the meals are being finished in the kitchen, the people delivering them to you can find your table. To be considerate if you share a table, try not to plop your table’s sign on top of the napkins because they are there for everyone at the table. We saw this with our second group of “table mates.”
After you pay for your meal, you return the way you came, going past the cooks, toward the room in the back where you then need to find a table. We and most people did this on our own, although we did see the person who greeted us come back to seat a few others.
We ordered several items so that we could share them. This first item is called Ahogada, which is a sandwich (torta) of pork carnitas, black beans, tomato broth, chile arbol sauce and pickled onions, which tasted like saurkraut. It was very good!
We also split an order of pozole (soup), which was excellent. The cashier will ask you if you want mild, medium or hot. If you snack on chile de arbols as if they are sugar candy, then the hot would be for you. We opted for medium and agreed that the pozole was closer to hot than medium, but it was delicious! Having a bite of torta or two in between was the perfect compliment.
The other torta that we shared was the Choriqueso, which was homemade chorizo sausage, roasted poblanos, cheese and the salsa you see in the photo. And yes, this too was excellente!
Continuing my venture into the cause otherwise known as “Birthday Celebrations that help you lose any semblance of your waistline,” we also ordered two dessert items to share. This beauty is called choco-flan. If this is your first time having choco-flan, and you usually enjoy flan alone, you should be aware that the flan will not taste exactly the same because of the baking process, so judge the flavors on their own merit.
The baking process is that when the dish goes into the oven, the flan is on the bottom and the chocolate cake batter is on the top. When the dessert is ready to come out of the oven, the flan will instead be on the top. What I’ve noticed in this dessert is that the chocolate cake will also not be like a solo chocolate cake, but usually has a heavier but very moist texture. The flan will also have a different texture and flavor, since there was a co-mingling of ingredients during the baking process. This chocoflan had hints of cointreau (I avoid alcohol so any hint of anything alcholic gets my attention), but it seemed to be more for flavor and it was burned off. I’ve had chocoflan three times, and I think this is hands down one of the best ones I’ve had.
One of the primary reasons I wanted to check out Xoco was to try their churros. From a perspective of texture, it was very light, and airy and it was easy to almost miss the creme filling in the center. The churro was dipped in granulated sugar which made it very sweet. Our first table partners dipped theirs in coffee and it looked like a great combination. The one thing I missed about this churro was the lack of canela, or cinnamon. It is possible that it was there but my taste buds were blown out by all the chilies, or it is just that it is a different recipe than what I am used to.
I am more inclined to go with the thought that the recipe itself was different. After all, in all the times I’ve eaten sopa pillas for dessert, only twice did they closely resemble each other, and depending upon the area of Mexico that the chef is from, they are known by the name of bueno pillas.
Due to far too many days with inadequate sleep, a hectic schedule and fighting off a cold, instead of hot chocolate I decided to try their chocolate cafe con leche. I forgot to ask for decaf so I’m paying for that today, since normally I don’t even drink coffee so one cup, even with all the milk, is akin to me having 4 cans of Red Bull.
Speaking of which, here is my beverage. It was quite good, and fortunately there was plenty of milk which helped make it less of a bullet beverage for me.
So overall, I would say that the quality of the food was excellent. My only problem with the restaurant was in the dining part, in regards to customer experience and atmospherics. Part of this is related general demographics of the clientele, who seemed to be comprised mostly of younger professionals and in general, the dining area felt like it could have been in any other downtown eatery. As a caveat, I should say that at least 80% of my Mexican food dining experiences are in family run or owned restaurants where usually at least half of the patrons are Mexican so there is a different ambience due to cultural differences vis a vis the general market.
This feeling isn’t necessarily due to the fast counter nature of the experience, as I’ve picked up food at Casa Del Pueblo which is cafeteria style, or El Milagro (in Pilsen), which has a similiar set up to Xoco in terms of queing and the physical flow of customers to the table areas. The one thing that does seem to make the difference is that at Xoco, the people who bring you your food are clearly scrambling, always moving, and seem somewhat rushed. There is no opportunity to actually interact with restaurant personnel once you sit down to wait for your meal.
This has not been my experience at El Milagro, where you can still ask questions, and talk to the person who brings you your food. At Xoco the food arrives, and there is a dearth of interaction with the person. It wasn’t just the person who brought us our food; it was consistent behavior which I attribute to the feeling of urgency that they had that they had to keep moving, clearing tables, bringing food, etc. In essence, it left a bit of an impersonal feeling in the customer experience arena where the actual tasting and eating of the food phase was involved. Perhaps when the long lines and the craze to try a new Bayless eatery calms down, the back end of the operation will provide a little more interaction that is common with most Latin American dining experiences. As it stood on Wednesday, I’ve had more ambiance standing on the street eating food I’ve bought from sidewalk vendors.
Would this stop me from returning? Not necessarily. Often I’ve dined with people who want elegant or upscale Mexican food and that special place for a celebration. In that way, Topolobampo remains high on my list of places to go, especially if the person or persons I am dining with have specific issues that make finding an upscale Mexican restaurant in the central part of the city a requirement. There is nothing more fabulous than to share that dining experience there with someone whose only experience with Mexican food is Taco Bell. If the same type of person wants a very casual, fast dining experience then Xoco is a solid hit because of the quality of the food and the Bayless Brand. As for me, I definitely will be back!
449 North Clark Street
Closed Sunday and Monday
312 / 334-3688