RECYCLED – XOCO – Local Beet Restaurant of the Year
We are pleased to see that LTHForum designated Xoco a Great Neighborhood Restaurant in 2011. Every so often, participants at LTHForum identify places around town as being a “GNR.” The Forum participants then spend several weeks arguing over exactly what “great” “neighborhood” and “restaurant” mean (the latter being somewhat resolved when overseers at LTH decided the ‘R’ could stand for “restaurant” or “resource”, hence allowing, for instance, the ineffable Northwest Cutlery to gain a GNR). Xoco, especially caused consternation amongst the folks.
Now, in full disclosure, our Beet staff did not fully agree on whether Xoco fit into the standards of GNRship. Myself, I take a very expansive look at the thing and found Xoco’s greatness represented in their commitment to high quality local ingredients and interesting and complex recipes. Wendy, on the other hand, tends to feel GNRs should go towards the more obscure, the more out there, to the neighborhoods that are neighborhoods. Still, Wendy and I both agree that Xoco is a special place, and that is why we were ahead of the curve, and gave it our Restaurant of the Year Award for 2009. (Read also about our 2010 Restaurant of the Year, City Provisions Deli, here.)
We’re here with the mission of making local eating practical for everyone. As much as we keep a root cellar in the sky and feed the kids sprout sandwiches (with cranberry cheddar and jam), we recognize that many a-times, eating local means eating out. It is not just the back door delivery of produce. The ramps and Iroquois corn of Spence Farm, the hogs of Slagel, George’s meats from Swan Creek, these all go to the restaurants. Worse, in the winter, they have access to City Farms, Growing Power, and Michigan’s Werp Farm for indoor produce. Do you. Or they have their own garden with a full time granger. Rick Bayless looked beyond his garden for Xoco. The dairy comes from Iowa’s Farmer’s All Natural Creamery; the ham, Prosciutto di Iowa. What really pleases us. We schlep to Indiana to get New Rinkel flour. Xoco has it for you. Xoco’s larder looks like ours. The opportunities to eat out in Chicago are many. Xoco made a nice addition to our choices this year.
We got a lot out of eating local out this year. At Mado, the hearts and heads that tasted so good also allowed local farmers to prosper (or at least make-do) because they could sell the whole beast. We stood in Paul Virant’s crowded office last February while he called up his latest menu on his computer. In the darkest of days, he rattled off his Vie offerings that, excepting seafood and citrus, remained local. Mark Mendez at Carnivale could whip up a tasty farm lunch the day after he marketed. Pat Sheerin, who shared some of his recipes on the Local Beet, showed us that local food could be served with a view at the Signature Room in the Hancock. We enjoyed what they did with local food at Naha, Lula, Blackbird, Publican, Prairie Grass Cafe. We want to name all of these places restaurants of the year.
The crowds now crowd our kind of places. Try getting in to Lula on a Sunday morning or Publican on a Sunday family dinner evening. And when we went to have lupper at Xoco at just past three, late enough for the caldos or meal-in-a-bowl soups, we found a line out the door. As much as it pained us to choose amongst so many choices for Restaurant of the year, we went for Xoco because of its role in the eating-sphere. Xoco proves that people want good food. It is not so much that Xoco brought great local food to the masses; it’s that the masses came to Xoco for well prepared, locally sourced foods. Even if you have to wait in a long line. Even if you have to wait again for a while for your food. If the guacamole is spare and served miserly in a plastic cup. If you cannot have the full menu if you eat only at lunch; that you have to bug them to get your dessert chocolate. You went to Xoco. Vie is fine dining. Mado a trattoria, but Xoco is the Soup Nazi of Mexican sandwiches. They are lining up for us.
And lining up for great reason. A torta for twelve dollars only seems like a lot until you eat it. The locally sourced goods taste clean and fresh. It tastes alive, as we always come to describe the differences because of local. Xoco proves that people want better bread. For some panphiles, the custom designed teleras and bolillos from Labriola justify the entrance fee. Xoco is uncompromising in its shopping. You roll past the suppliers like Burma Shave ads as you slowly move the line, but Xoco is also uncompromising in its cooking. A friend complained that the torta ahogada was too one note, all red chili and bright. Well, you know what. Mexican food can often be one note. It attracts us so much for its assaults and one notes. We want our Mexican food not to play nice with us. Xoco obliges (the pork carnitas caldo is muy picante too if you want that).
Want us to say some less than nice things about Xoco. Well, one of us did once get a caldo that seemed on the small side. Our other complaints: First, we would love to find some way that Xoco could accommodate its most casual fans. No, not that way. We mean there should be an easier way to come for a thick cup of Barcelona and a plate of churros to re-fuel. In fact, our second complaint is not so much a complaint but a request to accommodate your less than casual fans. We’re here naming Xoco Restaurant of the Year because of how they are reeling in the masses. You’ve done it with pork belly and suckling pigs [ed. was there not a headcheese sammy at one point?]. How ’bout going deeper. Stroll down Maxwell Street (well Des Plaines Street) some Sunday. Make us some of that. The lamb guts called buche. A torta with cabeza or steamed cow’s head, although we’ll understand if you skip the eyes. Get squishy on us. We’re ready.
We eat local out at several favorite restaurants. Picking a Restaurant of the Year was damn hard. With its 3 PM line out the door for local cuisine, we decided to go with the it place, Xoco. Thanks all of you for making it a pleasure to eat at your places.