December 17, 2013 • 1:16 pm

Unless I’m on vacation, I’m rarely out of the office on a weekday, so when I am, even when I have to do a chore, it feels like playing hooky.  Today I had to take The dinged-up CeilingCatMobile to the body shop, which involved a trip to downtown Chicago.  Since I was there already, I decided to have some fun (read “noms”), and I turned down a free ride home so I could go to nearby Xoco.

This is a restaurant opened several years ago by Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef who became famous for serving both upscale and authentic Mexican food. You may have seen his shows on PBS. It’s right next door to his other two places, the Frontera Grill and the fancier Topolobampo (the former is excellent though crowded, the latter overpriced).  Xoco is a different venture, serving fancy but tasty versions of Mexican street food, including caldos (soup), tortas (sandwiches), and snacks like hot chocolate and churros. It gets excellent reviews, and since it was about a ten-minute walk from the body shop, I went.  Here it is (click all photos to enlarge:


Here’s the full menu (hungry yet? Click it!)

Xoco specials

And the special tortas of the day. The guy behind the counter recommended the Tuesday special, carne asada (steak) with ramp chimichuri, wild mushrooms, and homemade crema (Mexican sour cream).


Here it is, with green chile chimichuri, and oy, was it good!


For dessert I had a pair of hot, fresh churros and the best cup of Mexican hot chocolate I’ve ever had. They grind the cocoa beans for you right before they make it:


For a digestif, I walked through the snowbound city. The view of downtown Chicago from the river is unparalleled, for it shows the diversity of architecture from classic and original skyscrapers to modern high-rises. There’s one thing about Chicago architecture: virtually all the big buildings are beautiful, and that can’t be said for cities like New York. Chicago prides itself on being the architectural capital of the U.S.

The classic view, with the 1959 “corncob” pair of towers, Marina City, and one of my favorite Art Deco buildings on the right, the Carbide and Carbon Building (1929) to the right and in the distance::

Chicago landscape

The corncobs:


And two new buildings. I love the new shiny one in the middle, though I don’t know its name. The white building on the right is the Wrigley Building, built by the chewing gum magnate in 1921.


And the lovely Art Deco tower of the Carbide and Carbon Building, whose facade is black granite, deliberately used to mimic the color of carbon. Isn’t it a doozy?


Oy, am I full!

52 thoughts on “Hooky!

  1. That looks delicious. I’m hungry now. I’d never be able to finish all that, but the Milanesa Torta looks like it night be good too.

    1. “That looks delicious. I’m hungry now. I’d never be able to finish all that…”

      Aarrghh, I know! Let’s split one!

  2. We were in Chicago two summers ago, staying at a hotel in the midst of all the tall buildings. I think I recognize the ‘corncobs’.
    We were struck by how friendly Chicagoans were. Any tourist who looked confused was soon approached by some nice person offering to help.

    1. Yes, Chicagoans seem to be super friendly. A few years ago my bf and I stayed w my cousin and her prof hubby in Hyde Park. We took the El into downtown to meet a friend at the Art Institute. At the Millenium Park station we asked the woman at the INFO desk which direction we should walk. She had never heard of the Art Institute one block away(!!!!) but a nice Korean gentleman w a heavt accent pointed the way.

    1. Or, lemme rephrase that – I hope Jerry doesn’t see this till after he’s finished digesting.

      Will WordPress ever let us edit?

  3. Some of the architectural details I really enjoy when I am in Chicago are the architectural details – specifically the great brasses that adorn so many buildings. I know of no other city in which there is so much brass ornamentation, and it’s really of the highest quality. I have wondered why (apparently) no one has ever done a documentation just of the decorative brass.

    (The food sounds just great.)

  4. Yuo…gonna have to go make myself a cup of hot chocolate now – w cinnamon, of course. I’ve eaten at Frontera a couple of times, and it is excellent, especially the brunch. Bought one of Baylis’ cookbooks which I’ve used a lot. There’s anothervreally good Mexican restaurant right near Second City. Can’t remember the name…and i was being so good before the Xmas pigouts…

    I took the river boat tour a few summers ago and it is a wonderful way to see Chicago’s architecture!

  5. I still think that Mexico deserves to be considered one of the greatest regions for culinary invention in the world. The diversity in such a relatively small area is impressive, and the innovation is wonderful.

    Of course, as with everywhere else, much of it is, fundamentally, meat on bread, just like sandwiches or quiches or pizzas or pitas or baos or piroghi or injira or the like. But the sauces — salsas — truly set Mexican cuisine apart. Mole, for example — chiles and chocolate blended in a savory sauce unlike any you’ll find anywhere else in the world.

    And, if anybody knows soup, it’s the Mexicans….

    Jerry, you found some good perspectives from which to shoot the skyscrapers. That kind of architectural photography is hard — a specialized discipline unto itself with its own armory of expensive equipment and esoteric techniques. As you can see, getting the whole building in the frame and minimizing perspective distortion isn’t easy, but you did well making do with what you’ve got.



      1. Curiously enough, I was thinking of Indian cuisine as the other noteworthy example, but decided not to mention it since Jerry only posted about Mexican….


  6. I was on holiday doing a bit of travelling around USA for a few weeks. My Father tagged along (he was in for chemo when we got back) and he wanted just to wing it, find a hotel when we get there. We compromised and tried to book a hotel, or a hostel or anything, On a Thursday night before we left St. Louis the next day. I checked dozens of websites, mostly comparison sites with many different places. There was no room anywhere. We ended up staying outside the city in a Motel 6 in a lovely place called Schiller Park. We could take the train into the city the next day because your trains are huge and shiny, it would be fun. Trains didn’t run on weekends, so we just went for a walk around what looked like an industrial estate, dined from a 7/11 and watched TV. We still had a few days after that to get into the city.
    Chicago is my favourite city I have ever visited and the Field Museum is my second favourite place in the world, after the London Natural History Museum. They showed the only good 3D movie I have seen (it was about Sue the T-Rex).
    These photos got me all excited.

  7. I only go to Chicago a couple times a year and always make it to Frontera. Excellent food. Never ate at Xoco but will put it on my list next trip. Thanks for the tip

  8. I hate to say it, but that Trump Tower is gorgeous. I hope the short-fingered vulgarian doesn’t see this.

  9. Oy vey! I never pass up barbacoa (or goat, generally) when it’s available. Wonderful stuff! *making goat horns over my head and goat noises* 🙂

  10. Wow, Mexican hot chocolate! Sounds great! If I ever get to Chicago, I’ll have to go to Xoco. I wonder if the founder would open a version of his store in NYC. It would probably do very well.

      1. I also love the Flatiron building, but the Chrysler Building is my favorite. Also, Calexico serves up some great Mexican (or Mexicali) food in NYC. Of all the world’s cuisines, Mexican (real, authentic, Mexican) is one of the hardest to find in NYC.

  11. You are right about the architecture of New York v. Chicago. I live in New York, but Chicago rocks, not just for its wonderful architecture but also for stuff like its Picasso sculpture. New York has the Empire State Building, the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building and some other gems, but most everything built in the last half century consists of soulless glass and steel boxes. The replacement tower for the toppled World Trade Center twins is boring to the point of being hideous. Unfortunately, Chicago, like New York, is too cold in the winter. 🙁

  12. I was in Chicago with 3 hours between trains and I walked downtown to the beautiful old Chicago Tribune building It’s worth a special visit — the newspaper’s reporters returned from various world events with fragments of “salvaged” historical temples / stones from famous battlegrounds / castles / etc — and the 136 pieces were embedded in the outer walls of the Trib while it was built, so you can see them all as you walk around outside.

    I bet most Chicagoans have never looked at the building and its historic fragments. When I spent my half hour making notes on them, not a single other pedestrian stopped to see.

  13. I’ve always liked Rick Bayliss and his Food Network show. I can without hesitation recommend his book “Mexico Everyday”, which I think highlights some of the recipes he demonstrated on his show.

    Thanks for sharing that. Yet another good reason to visit the Windy City.

    1. I also really like watching Rick Bayless when he is on TV, which is interesting because his brother Skip Bayless is one of the most off-putting, insulting, disgraceful, and pathetic people I have ever seen on TV. And that’s not just my opinion – it’s the general consensus among everyone who cares at all about sports broadcasting.

  14. BTW, does your Mex restaurant serve cricket tacos? Because I can get those in New York. 🙂 Also, when I lived in San Francisco, I had access to a nice place in Oakland that served sheep’s brain burritos.

  15. For a small city with exceptional architecture, Columbus, Indiana (pop ~44K) is worth mentioning here. Architects like Eero Saarinen & IM Pei. Seven structures are National Historic Landmarks, which must be a record for a place that size since there are only ~2500 NHL’s in the whole country. All because of a program whereby architects fees for public and other bldgs are paid by Cummins Diesel Corp whose HQ is there.

  16. Having been to Chicago only once and briefly to play a gig, my main noms memory was a juicy beef sandwich. With this being a proper gig ( I.e. we got payed in beer ) I’m afraid I don’t remember much of the architecture.

    People were nice, though.

  17. ¡Que celoso estoy! I’m a big fan of Bayless, but have never been to one of his restaurants. It’s on the (rather long) Chicago to-do list for the next time I make it to that fine city.

  18. Scrumptious post. I’ve enjoyed Rick Bayless’s cooking shows; he’s adorable! There was a sweet one with Julia Childs on her show too, as well as another with Rick talking about Julia.

    I can almost taste the green chili chimichurri. The best salsa verde I’ve ever had was in Puerto Vallarta. I ought to learn how to make this myself.

  19. Loved Bayless’ show & watched it frequently some years ago. I didn’t know about him when I went to boot camp and “A” school at Great Lakes Naval Station; he may have been too young to own a restaurant then. I didn’t know about deep dish pizza until then, either. For 9 weeks I took a train once or twice a week to a neighborhood in Waukegan that had several pie joints in a couple of blocks from a stop, and put on about 15 pounds in the process.

  20. In for the food jealousy.

    But even without noms pics, this line would have been worth it:

    Today I had to take The dinged-up CeilingCatMobile to the body shop,

    Nice to end my day with a belly laugh. Thank you Prof. Coyne.


  21. Those are beautiful. I was in Argonne just last week, but was taking data the whole time. I really wanted to see the city where Jerry lives.

  22. I work about a block away from the Carbon and Carbide building. I believe it’s the former headquarters of the company now known as Union Carbide. (Now it’s the home of a Hard Rock Hotel.) The black part is graphite. The gold part is real gold leaf.

    If you like that, go to the southwest corner of the Michigan Avenue bridge some summer day and take the architectural river boat tour. While you’re waiting, visit the museum in the bridge tower. It’s a history if the Chicago River, back to its days as a natural watercourse, with a platform where you can stand to see the workings of the bridge. I so want to go there some spring weekend when the bridge is bring opened to let boats up and down the river.

  23. In 2012 took a private boat ride on the Chicago River through the “Canyon of Architecture.” Awesome!!! For an excellent article on architecture, I suggest “Groundwork” by Robin Dripps; it can be found on the Internet.

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