Bayless opens new spot for Mexican street food

October 9, 2009 (CHICAGO) Mainly from his big win on Top Chef Masters but that's nothing compared to the attention he's been getting for his new restaurant.

Topolobampo might be out of your price range, and Frontera Grill is nearly impossible to get a reservation but Xoco which happens to be right next door offers the bold flavors of Mexican street food, at a fraction of the price of its culinary siblings. Best part of all, it's open just about all day long.

Rick Bayless had a problem. He wanted to slow-roast meats overnight in a big, new, woodburning oven. But the oven took up a lot of space, so he decided to just create a new restaurant around it, called Xoco, which is Aztec slang for "little sister."

"If we were gonna do something different, we've got sort of a casual upscale place, a fine-dining place and then what we didn't have was a place that you could just drop in and taste the flavors of Frontera, but in a very simple atmosphere," said Bayless.

The menu is broken into three categories: breakfast, which features a number of Mexican cacao beans that are roasted and ground on-site, producing intense chocolate drinks... plus homemade churros, which offer a number of dipping possibilities.

Lunch features hearty tortas. Some, from the oven, include cochinita pibil - pulled pork bathed in achiote, plus black beans, pickled onions and spicy habanero chiles. Other tortas are pressed on the griddle, such as the Cubana, containing sliced pork loin and bacon; black beans, avocado, Jack cheese and chipotle mustard. Salads are robust. Consider the Xoco salad: pork carnitas or roasted chicken with marinated black beans, romaine and arugula, plus crispy tortilla strips in an avocado-lime dressing, crowned with pickled red onions.

"The food here is really all inspired by market food and street food. So for us what we wanted to do was capture those big, bold flavors that you get typically, in those environments, and it's not about all the sauces," Bayless said.

At night, it's all about the caldos - meals in a bowl, really. From red chile chicken posole, to a seafood bowl, jammed with organic shrimp, mussels and catfish, nestled in a chile broth with tiny potatoes and grilled onions, topped with fresh pea shoots and cilantro.

"It's just a simple way to have great flavors without spending an arm and a leg or too much time," said Bayless.

Due to Bayless' recent win on Top Chef Masters and his national reputation, lines can be long. But there's rarely a wait in the morning especially between 7 and 10 a.m.

449 N. Clark St.

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