Oct 212009

Xoco, the new fast-food concept by Rick Bayless, has been open for a few weeks, and we couldn’t wait to try it. Fortunately, the arrival of Boston’s very own Food Monkey Mike Prerau provided us with a perfect excuse to go.

Savory vegetable caldo with hidden potato dumplings in its depths.

Savory vegetable caldo with hidden potato dumplings in its depths.

We met up with Mike and his friend Nick around 5pm. It was a good thing we arrived early because it gets very busy, there’s a lack of low tables, and people (including us) like to linger. Xoco may be a fast food concept, but the folks who enjoy Rick’s cuisine aren’t in that mode, which translates into crazy lines at the front of the house.

Here’s how I think it works: if you have a number, then you can order and keep going back to order more food as long as you have it. However, if you don’t have a number, then you have to stand in line for a table. Once you get a table, then you’re given a number. If you’re there for to-go food, I guess you mix between the two lines because there doesn’t appear to be room for a third. It’s a little confusing so there’s a dedicated line wrangler who tells you where to stand and when to sit. Truly, I haven’t had that much line drama since my last visit to Disneyland.

This shortrib sandwich was served swimming in sauce.

This shortrib sandwich was served swimming in sauce.

The flow could be forgiven if the food was as awesome as Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. Though it’s good, I don’t think it’s near Rick’s other efforts. Some things were as expected — the guacamole is incredible and Bayless does something to salsa that elevates it to va-va-voom. Others at our table raved over the shortrib torta (sandwich) with its pickled jalapenos and the varieties of hot chocolate.

Unfortunately, most things were just okay. The woodland-mushroom torta I had was heavily crusted, laden with goat cheese, and sank in my stomach. The caldos (soups) were a tad salty for my taste and didn’t satisfy my notion of to-die-for soup — and at these prices they should. The churros that we ordered for dessert were served cold and there weren’t any waiters around to check on the quality of what was delivered. Tsk, tsk.

We requested our caldo without pepper, but it could've really used some.

We requested our caldo without pepper, but it could've really used some.

To get the full experience, you can expect to pay around $20 a person at minimum. That marginally qualifies as a cheap eat and certainly doesn’t meet my notion of what fast food, street food, or snacks should cost. I know it’s Rick Bayless, but c’mon.

Looking over the breakfast menu, the prices and options seem to be in line with what I’d expect to pay for breakfast downtown. I’m interested enough to try a morning run to Xoco, but plan to skip the long lines and over-priced food in the evening.

449 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Online buzz about Xoco:
Chicago Gluttons
Chicago Trib

  6 Responses to “Xoco – where fast food meets fine diners”

  1. Pics look great! The way the waiting lines work sound kind of odd to me. Though it is awesome to see they are so busy that they need lines. Of course the other good thing is that they have someone minding the line like you note. That can be really good for customer interaction.

  2. I think it’s a great model for upper-scale quick service restaurants. There’s a lot of offerings packed into that little place. Here’s my take on Xoco: http://thepleasanthouse.com/2009/09/10/restaurant-tale-xoco-its-simple-too/

  3. You know, I think you’re right to compare it to Urban Belly. Both are trying for lower-scale solutions to compete in this economy. However, I feel Rick Bayless is too big for this concept to work. The space was overrun the evening we were there. Xoco should pack up and go somewhere much larger.

  4. @Harold (SMM) The fact that a line wrangler is necessary means there’s a problem with how it’s designed. I don’t like going into a restaurant and not intuitively understanding how I’m supposed to order food and eat it.

  5. I can see why it would be hard for locals to get their heads around the long lines and the price point. But Rick Bayless is the biggest food celebrity in Chicago–that in itself is an attraction to a huge majority of the clientele. This is definitely a very unique situation unlike any other in the city and that, in my opinion, is what necessitates the line wrangler. It also means, in simple business terms, that it can demand a higher price point.

    I think though, that industry folks can take away the positive aspects of this concept such as–skillfully crafted, local and sustainable ingredients and a variety of uber authentic offerings with the option of pricey adornments for a heel-heeled or splurging clientele and incorporate them into other quick service concepts that don’t have to be as expensive and, unless they are the biggest food celebrity in their city, will not need a line wrangler.

    I purchased some food at another “Mexican” quick service concept just last night (because I had a two for one coupon) it is called Chipotle. I will tell you that the sheer weight of two burritos in a bag made my arm tired. Half of that food ended up in my stomach. Concept-wise, Xoco and Chipotle are both quick service Mexican restaurants. To me-one is the now and the other is the future of quick service.

    I have no way of knowing but I think that Xoco could easily be a streamlined way for Rick Bayless to reach the street level fresh food market in every big city. There’s the Macy’s thing–not practical for most people and there’s the Frontera Foods which is great but it’s just a small taste. You can really say that Xoco is tasting fresh made food that represents everything that Rick Bayless stands for.

    ***And I do not know or work for Rick Bayless. This is just an industry person’s observations and opinions on Rick Bayless as chef and entrepreneur and on the concept.

  6. “I will tell you that the sheer weight of two burritos in a bag made my arm tired. Half of that food ended up in my stomach.”

    I should clarify. I don’t see this as a good thing.

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