Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ugly Little Sister

I must defer to Cassandra, whose first language skills and knowledge of Mexican vernacular will always trump my busted up Spanish, and conclude that Xoco does not mean "little sister" but actually means "foam." Having just ate lunch there, I can say that the food was closer to foam than a promised little sister, even an ugly one. The fare was empty and bland—foam indeed. I know beer drinkers call foam "head." Let me also assure you that head is far more satisfying than Xoco, be it from a little or big sister.

A more fitting title for the new restaurant from Rick Clueless would be So-So, not Asi-Asi, which is more Mexican than what you'll find at Xoco. I realize that walking into one of Bayless's eateries means opening yourself up for anything other than authentic Mexican food. I am fine with the idea of fusion or contemporary takes on ethnic cuisine, though all too often the price tag hurts. (Rick Payless? No—more.) But Xoco is supposed to serve Mexican street food, or Rick Vainglorious's celebrated take on it. No gorditas or sopes were seen, but they did feature lunchtime tortas. I'm a torta fan. The best I've had in Chicago was in a forgotten spot on Cermak and California. The worst I've had was at Xoco. While meat is the normal choice at most Mexican joints, it is not hard to find a vegetarian option. Not so at Xoco. Why even the black beans in the wild mushroom torta (made from the mushrooms that grow wild along the streets of Mexico City?) had some trace elements of animal flesh. Pity—black beans are my go-to option. I asked for avocado instead, as did Cassandra, who ordered a special torta filled with various greens and goat cheese. Add to that some guacamole and chips and a bi-carbonate take on plain water (the only water in sight) and we were close to $30 deep. Plus dessert (my comments on that will be served after dishing on the main meal).

Let's back up.

To eat at Xoco one has to wait in line, much like countless other dine-in and to-go cafés and restaurants in the Chicago business district. But there is no to-go here, only dine-in. Oddly, one must wait in line for quite a bit behind the other dupes eager to liberate their savings accounts. Then one is directed to order their food and pay before eating, much like at McDonalds or Corner Bakery or that Cosi place white women seem to love. After waiting and ordering, the patron is confronted by mechanical cashiers and given a number, further proof that society is becoming increasingly dehumanized. The number accompanies the diner to their table, assuming one has opened up. If one has not, then the diner waits some more. We were lucky; our table became free just as we placed our order. We were whisked away to a cozy corner nestled adjacent to Rick Feckless's daughter with a wounded arm who, nevertheless, distributed menus and greeted the odd customer. (Probably making more money than then most office workers will see in a year, all from doing less. Is this irony or happenstance?) It was not the best seat in the house, but—being such a small spot—there didn’t seem to be one at all. The décor was fine, if you accept fine at its most literal. The music? Shakira, a Colombian, played at this "Mexican" restaurant, but do the well-to-do white patrons really know the difference?

First came the chips and guacamole. It was not bad, but how hard are chips and guacamole? Wasn't this supposed to be the ambrosia of simple Mexican food? A few onions adorned the green paste, though a few more might have added flavor, not to mention some cilantro. Sadly, the guacamole was rather bland (Rick Tasteless). The chips were salty and abundant, as chips tend to be. I am inclined to rate those highest on the list, slim pickings to be sure. Then came the tortas. I must say, they were the best Potbelly's subs I have ever had. Toasted crisp, like Potbelly's, they hurt the teeth upon first bite. Bastards. They were served on what resembled a baguette. I may not be the worldliest motherfucker to ever pass down the pike, but I thought tortas were served on soft flour bolillos, not baguettes. Sorry to belabor the point, but it really did taste like a slightly more upscale version of the Potbelly's veggie sandwich, complete with mushrooms and cheese. The salsa set off no alarms and added little to the lack of complexity.

Underwhelmed was I. Here I thought Rick was supposed to be a wizard of the kitchen. Much like a modern Christopher Columbus, he sails the high seas and travels to exotic lands (Mexico, in this case) promising to return with silks and spices, getting lost on the way. Alas, all he returned with was knock-offs (though, like Columbus, he too is raping and pillaging the brown people's culture). But he is not Rick Brainless; he has concocted a sure fire scam. Glean some old world recipes. Add a dash of Gringo. Tame down the taste. Package pretty. Sell for cartloads. Smart, very smart.

This is not to say that Rick is unworthy of his rep. Hell, we made some of his spinach enchiladas at home and—while Cassandra was no fan—I thought they were pretty damn good. And my buddy Jeff cooked up some vegetarian fajitas à la Bayless that hit the spot quite well. Maybe I need to check things out down ol' Frontera way. Perhaps his traditional sit-down spot would be more to my liking, even if it is less than traditional. Maybe, but if it is anything like Xoco-loco then I'll say, "no-no."

On to the postre!

We were wise enough to order the churros y chocolate ahead of time. (I was not about to wait in line again.) After what felt like too long, we managed to get a server (very nice and the only Mexican looking person in the place, other than mi niña) to take away our baskets of food and bring on the dessert. Hopes were high, as we had heard tell of the churros and chocolate (the cocao beans come from Mexico and are roasted in-house). My chocolate was tasty—the Aztec, made with chilies—and Cassandra's was pretty good, but the churros were abominable. Maybe I'm spoiled. I've had the greatest churro of my life in Coyoacán. Still, my standards are not so high—I merely ask for more than cold, hard, and bland. Seriously, I've had better churros at the Ford City Mall.

With an audible "ugh," we left. That was at 1:45PM. It is now 4:46 and the weight of the foamy little sister lingers in the guts. It is not a pleasant feeling having such a bellyful of mundane food. What bothers me more is the rave reviews I heard from the other eaters. Perhaps the meat dishes are the way to go. Maybe if I ate pork or chicken I might have better feelings about all this. Oh well: there are always the tortas of the small taquerías, all of which are sure to be superior and cost a hell of a lot less.

Your humble half-assed critic bows and thanks you for your time.