Whether you’re fretting about where to take that cutie you’ve been crushing on in chem for a casual coffee date or looking for a romantic anniversary dinner locale, we’ve got all the details here. We hope you enjoy reading about these date destinations as much as we enjoy writing about them, and that you’ll give some of them a taste.
So, in the spirit of this selection: Buen Provecho!
Address: 449 N. Clark Street, Chicago
Hours: Tue-Thu, 8:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m; Fri-Sat, 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Getting there: A five-minute walk from the Grand stop on the Red Line
This classy and chic eatery just north of the Loop offers authentic Mexican street fare. Although the lunch and dinner menus consists of only two types of entrée, Xoco’s many variations on traditional tortas and caldos are quite impressive. The upscale environment and fantastic hot chocolate are icing on an already delicious cake.
If you know anything about Rick Bayless, your expectations are probably already set pretty high. With his famous Frontera Grill, he’s made a career out of bringing traditional Mexican dishes to the fine-dining circles of America, and he continues this trend with Xoco. On this venture, I had the Carnitas Caldo, a traditional soup of pork carnitas, potato dumplings, serrano chiles, avocado and kale. The flavors in this caldo are diverse but blend together in a uniquely delicious way. The broth is surprisingly bitter (I suspect due to the kale) but that bitterness is actually pleasant and cleansing in between bites of savory pork and sweet avocado. The serranos, typically a very spicy chile, were not too hot in this dish, adding an ideal amount of spice for me. However, those less inclined toward spicy food may want to steer clear of this dish, as it does pack some heat. Served in an enormous bowl, the caldos are well worth their $11-plus price tags. For desert, Sarah and I split an order of churros, served with chocolate dipping sauce made from the same beans as Xoco’s famous hot chocolate. These churros are, if there was any doubt, miles above any dining hall or ballpark variety that I’ve ever encountered. Despite being nothing more than fried dough rolled in sugar and cinnamon, they were somehow extremely light. I’m usually averse to carnival-style fried pastries like these because I get overwhelmed by the oil and sweetness, but somewhere between the high quality of Xoco’s take on this classic dessert and the bittersweet dipping sauce, I was sold.
The servers at Xoco are friendly and helpful. Full of recommendations and always earnestly smiling, they guide diners through a complete Mexican dining experience, hospitality included. My only critique is that their system of getting customers to their tables is a bit awkward. Patrons can’t order until a table opens up for them, and this can lead to excessive backups during relatively uncrowded hours. The current system involves a lot of waiting in line and is not very conducive to the restaurant’s overall bistro setup. But once our order was placed, it was smooth sailing: we were seated immediately and food arrived quickly and with a smile.
Xoco’s interior is lined with tall bars and small tables. Sharing is not encouraged, it’s mandatory: Often, six or more people from two or three parties will share a table that looks as though it’s meant to seat four. I’m generally a fan of communal tables, but I’m more used to the long, benched tables of barbeque joints and old school diners. In Xoco’s case, the sharing of tables just feels like poor planning. Everything is nicely designed, though, there’s no getting around that. Every eating and seating surface is modern-cut stainless steel and the walls are warm, Latin colors. A traditional mural decorates the wall across from the register and prints of mustachioed rancheros hang on every wall. I’m a fan of Xoco’s interior design, just not its seating situation.
Date Factor (4/5)
While good food doesn’t necessarily indicate a good date, I think Xoco makes a strong case. It’s hard not to enjoy yourself in a warm-colored room with a hot caldo in front of you, regardless of the high amounts of chatter and loud laughter in the dining area. That said, Xoco’s is a bit on the noisy side, and that can put a damper on the conversation. I’m not a big talker when I eat so I didn’t mind, but I think Sarah did. While the throng can be a little hard to talk over, it won’t likely take your attention from your food or your date.
Xoco does Mexican food the justice it deserves; rumor has it that Bayless journeyed to Mexico to acquire the recipes himself. I ordered the Chipotle Chicken Torta, a sandwich which is warmed in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. This is a simple (but delicious) introduction to the infinite possibilities of the Mexican torta. The sandwich, while a little pricey at just under $10, is definitely worth the splurge. Scrumptious sourdough-like bread cradles one of the most delightful sandwich combinations I have ever tasted. Hearty seasoned pulled chicken, black beans and Jack cheese are paired beautifully with a summery slice of avocado, leaf of arugula and chipotle tomato sauce. Although the chipotle tomato sauce does have a bit of a kick, it does not overpower the other subtler flavors that harmonize in this sandwich. If you’re looking to get more bang for your buck, one torta is big enough to split if neither party is famished. For dessert, I ordered a Classic Bean-to-Cup Chocolate. This was by far the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. Xoco purchases whole cacao beans, which they roast and grind in house. The freshness of the cacao beans dramatically impacts the intensity of the hot chocolate. I would be hard-pressed to find a better cup of hot chocolate in all of Chicago. The classic style tastes just like you always hoped hot chocolate would, before you were disillusioned by foil packets full of flavorless powder. Xoco even offers an Aztec style hot chocolate, combining cacao beans and chile just like the ancient indigenous tribes drank. A meal at Xoco is not complete without a cup of hot chocolate.
Xoco is an interesting hybrid of traditional sit-down restaurant and order-at-the-counter bistro. Patrons form a line and a server takes orders as tables become available. The diners are then ushered to a table, where their food is delivered. No tip is necessary in this system. The major flaw that John and I experienced was being trapped behind a large group of patrons. Because orders are only taken as seating space becomes available, we had to wait to place our order until the large party ahead of us was seated. Be prepared for excessively lengthy lines during typical lunch and dinner hours. Aside from the slight logistical failings of Xoco’s dining method, the service was more than acceptable.
Seating at Xoco is fairly limited, and tables are crammed uncomfortably close together. Due to this shortage, multiple small parties may be seated at the same table during peak dining hours. This can lead to an unpleasantly loud and public dining experience. The restaurant’s furnishings are very aesthetically appealing, but the space itself is somewhat awkwardly shaped. Nothing about Xoco’s atmosphere is downright bad, but it is certainly not the most comfortable or traditional dining experience.
Date Factor (3.5/5)
Between the obnoxious businessmen seated so close to you that they might as well be in your lap and the food that fully commands your attention, Xoco is not a restaurant that fosters conversation, be it intimate or otherwise. This eatery is a great place for a casual evening out with the friends or significant other, but nothing about Xoco is particularly romantic. It is a brilliant date spot only if your date is a complete foodie. The other elements of dining at Xoco pale in comparison to the quality of the food, including the person sitting across from you. Don’t be surprised if your date is more interested in his or her dinner than in you.
Xoco is a gastronomic powerhouse, worth a try whether you have a date or not. The jury is still out on its boistrous interior, but there's no denying the awesome culinary venue that Rick Bayless has created with Xoco. So eat, drink hot chocolate and be merry: everyone else in the place is.