Xoco

by Steven Behling


My friend Lauren's wedding wasn't the only reason for my trip to Chicago in May 2013. Approximately eight years earlier, I was in my first year of graduate school and received an enthusiastic email from a girl named Rachel. My graduate program matched second year students with first years in a mentorship role, and Rachel had just been matched with me. In her message, she expressed profound excitement to begin her studies at DePaul that upcoming fall, and was eager for advice on how to best prepare. My response included the following excerpt:

"...your primary task RIGHT NOW is to relax and enjoy yourself. Do fun things and don't think about grad school...you're in already so just chill for a bit before you jump into the swirling black hole that is grad school."

Over the following eight years, Rachel and I developed the kind of relationship that only mutual suffering, confusion, frustration, despair and, ultimately, triumph over evil can bring. Early May 2013 brought not only a return to my beloved Chicago, but also Rachel's final step in becoming a licensed psychologist: 225 questions answered over the course of 240 minutes covering every aspect of the field of psychology, regardless of the questions' relevance to the actual practice of psychology, formally known as the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). You see, it's not enough to obtain a doctorate in psychology and accrue thousands of hours of supervised experience. One must also jump through the flaming hoop of multiple-choice standardized assessment in order to become properly licensed.

Rachel arrived at the restaurant on the verge of tears, which is a typical response after being ravaged and cast aside by the EPPP.  Nearly everyone I know has walked out of the exam thinking, "That's it.  I've failed.  Everything I ever thought I knew isn't enough.  It's all been a lie."  Then, weeks later, nearly everyone finds out that yes, they did indeed pass.  Fortunately for Rachel (and for me and her husband Justin), we had chosen Rick Bayless's counter-service Mexican wonderland, Xoco, as our meeting place post-exam.  I had dined at Bayless's Frontera Grill, with dessert from the upscale Topolobampo, once in 2004 when my sister and brother-in-law were visiting Chicago, but alas...until Xoco, his masterful representation of Mexican cuisine was beyond the reach of a graduate student's budget.  

After noting Bayless's presence near the front of house, I ordered a cochinita pibil torta with tender, wood-roasted suckling pig in achiote, creamy black beans, & pickled onions on a crusty roll perfect for dipping in a burning hot habanero sauce.  Perfection on a plate, photographed in a darker area of the space and subjected to an Instagram filter I was particularly fond of at the time.

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Crispy-yet-doughy, sugary churros dipped in melty Champurrado hot chocolate (of which we did not waste a drop), followed our respective meals.  The coarseness of the sugar balanced out the hot, doughy interior of the cinammony churro, and the hot chocolate was less Swiss Miss and more "thank you, miss."  Liquid chocolate would have been a better description.

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Trips back to Chicago are now dictated by jam-packed (pun intended) food itineraries, and there simply isn't time to stop at the same place twice.  Although this may surprise many readers, my stomach does reach capacity at some point.  Nevertheless, after Lauren's wedding and before the reception, I found myself both peckish and down the street from the Bayless block (North Clark Street between Illinois and Hubbard).  Again, he was physically present throughout the restaurant, overseeing the various operations and working the line.  The positive impact of his presence was felt in many ways, not the least of which was my bowl of wood-roasted chicken pozolé with Gunthorp chicken, tender hominy, smoky broth, crunchy cabbage and crisp radishes, a generous amount of ground red chile, and a squeeze of lime.  Not since I lived and worked among the migrant farm workers of central Washington State had I tasted the familiar flavors of a rich and satisfying bowl of pozolé.

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I can still taste it.

Xoco is located at 449 N Clark Street in the River North neighborhood of Chicago.  A cursory search of teh Interwebs reveals a second location at 1741 N Milwaukee Ave in Wicker Park, just down the street from my old apartment.  I never should have moved.


The Bongo Room

by Steven Behling


True to form, my tribute to the city of Chicago and the food that got me through graduate school is taking longer to complete than promised...much like the graduate school experience itself.  October 2014 was a crazy month with some rather tough stuff in it, but here we are in November and I'm hungry to continue celebrating some of my favorite Chicago eateries. 

The Bongo Room.  Photos simply do not do justice to the decadence that is brunch at The Bongo Room.  Very few photos exist of my many trips to this fine establishment, mostly because I could not wait another moment to take in the fluffiest pancakes coated in crushed pretzels and drizzled with chocolate and bananas, or perhaps an aromatic vanilla crème anglaise and ribbons of salted caramel, or maybe a dusting of graham cracker and webs of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla sauces with fresh strawberries dancing in a Neapolitan wonderland.  If you play your cards right, you might happen upon said pancakes topped with crushed candied praline and buttery hazelnut cream.  I could go on and on.  And on.

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Pancakes not your thing?  No prob.  How 'bout their chocolate tower French toast?  Bittersweet chocolate chunk bread with maple mascarpone (did someone say autumn?), banana crème brûlée sauce (what?!), fresh bananas and a little chocolate tulip plus chocolate shavings on top. #becausechocolate

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I suggest going with a friend and ordering one sweet, one savory, and splitting them amongst yourselves.  My favorite savory has always been their baby spinach, roasted red pepper, and feta Benedict, shown photobombing the chocolate tower French toast above.  That Benedict is such a ham.

The Bongo Room has three Chicago locations: 1470 N Milwaukee in Wicker Park (check out the ceiling fans!), 5022 N Clark in Andersonville (perhaps the most seating of the three), and the original South Loop location at 1152 S Wabash.