Rick Bayless has achieved demigod status in the restaurant world; he's a chef who seamlessly commands a Mexican dining empire as well as respect and admiration from peers and diners near and far. In River North, Topolobampo and Frontera Grill are timeless keystones that draw customers from all over the country and beyond. When Bayless opened his most casual endeavor to date, XOCO, right next door to Frontera Grill, people lined up down the block, and they continue to do so to this day. Then when the restaurateur announced plans to open a XOCO offshoot in Wicker Park, his first restaurant in the neighborhood and the first Bayless brick and mortar spot in several years, excitable alarm bells went off throughout the foodie community, and rightfully so. After debuting to cramped crowds and feverish success, Bayless renamed the new XOCO to XOCO Bistro to highlight the fact that this location was more full-service and full-fledged as a bar and restaurant. So how does Mexican street food fair in a sit-down environment? Let's find out.
Compared to the original XOCO, the Wicker Park interpretation is much more spacious, sunny, and inviting, with ample dining space on either side of the entry door. There's a full bar lined with stools and packed with booze, including several cocktails, wines, and craft beers on tap. All in all, the atmosphere at Bistro is wildly more comfortable, especially considering the frenetic pace and incessant lines that plague the downtown outpost. This is all well and good until you peruse the menu and realize that the street food concept is rather in stark contrast to the sit-down format. Tortas, caldos, churros, and Mexican hot chocolate are befitting a fast-casual template like the one in River North, not so much a full-service restaurant where the overall cost will be drastically heightened. The quality is there in strides, but it just feels a tad off to eat a sandwich delivered by a waiter. I don't go to restaurants to order grilled cheese or a meatball sub, so why would I do so for a barbacoa sandwich? The restaurant could have benefitted by borrowing a page from the Cemitas Puebla handbook, wherein the Humboldt Park taqueria recently opened a spiffed up and modernized new location in the West Loop. It's still counter service and casual, but noticeably more upscale and streamlined in the same token.
Disorientation aside, the food at XOCO Bistro continues to sing. Bayless always has and always will have a way with precision and vividly fresh cookery. This is Mexican street food with some serious panache. Classic and familiar creations like guacamole, tortas, and cinnamon-y, fryer-fresh churros are as good as you'll find anywhere. Less familiar fare, like the hummus-y sikil pak made with pumpkin seeds and habanero, is a refreshing addition to any tortilla chip tray, and the barbacoa caldo, brimming with toothsome shreds of chile-soaked beef, gives chicken soup a run for its money in the heady soul food department. While I don't necessarily order meatball subs while dining out, I will happily gobble up XOCO's albondigas, tender pork meatballs awash in smoky chipotle sauce with a side of slightly sweet plantain-infused rice. When it comes to dessert, those churros are still as essential as they've always been, an incredible exclamation point to punctuate a Mexican meal, especially when dunked in dulce de leche or thick Mexico City-style champurrado chocolate.