Sky Full of Bacon

Downtown, Land of Expensive Fun (Xoco, Macarons)

It’s ironic, after all the years I spent working in Chicago’s downtown, that it’s now the one place in Chicago I’m afraid to go. I’ll brave bad neighborhoods or farflung suburbs heedlessly, but… $20 parking? Tourist hordes? Hard Rock and Rainforest? Now that’s scary. So it took me some months to finally try Rick Bayless’ new sandwich/soup spot, Xoco, but when my wife made me an ophthalmologist appointment, I knew it was my chance to lead the family down there for that and another putative delight I’d heard about.

We arrived at Xoco at 11:15 and a line was already forming; because we were a party of four, we were put into a holding pattern before being given our number for seating.  (Though mildly irritating, the degree of organization is pretty impressive and obviously necessary— Hot Doug can manage his whole floor by sight but the seating here snakes around the tiny space, making it impossible to survey from the kitchen.)

Also mildly irritating is the fact that the soup menu is not served until 3:00, meaning that the whole menu here is about ten sandwiches.  (One soup was available in a small size, so we ordered it.)  Of the sandwiches, we got cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork), a chicken one and a beef shortrib one; there was really nothing to appeal to an 8-year-old, so he got churros and chips and salsa to eat, which automatically made him the one most likely to love his lunch.

Basically: loved the crusty toasted bread, baked specially for Xoco by Labriola, which puts these sandwiches instantly in a category far above most of the sandwiches in town.  Loved the soup, hearty and with deep flavor.  Churros were pretty much the best ever.  But… we felt the sandwiches were a very mixed bag.  Easily the best, and not coincidentally also the simplest and most traditional, was the cochinita pibil, with its standard accompaniments of pickled onions and habanero sauce.  The other two both seemed overcomplicated, too many flavors (hot sauce, beans, avocado) and textures undercutting the natural good flavors of the very nice, name-brand natural meats Bayless is buying.  It didn’t help that the woodsmoked chicken was just above cold, and far too drowned in red chile sauce to taste of woodsmoke, or that the short ribs, conversely, seemed bland and gummy.

As many have noted, this is an expensive lunch— we spent just shy of $50 for four.  Now, compared not to other Mexican torta joints but to other downtown options, it’s not out of line; I doubt you’d get out of a plastic meal at the likes of Buca di Beppo for less.  What was disappointing wasn’t paying so much for things that didn’t work, but just that they didn’t work, dammit.  Xoco has so much obvious potential, and much of it is good enough to make the parts that aren’t seem that much more inexplicable.  Me, the next time I go back, it’ll either be for breakfast before 11, or for soup after 3.

Next we trudged up north for something I’d heard about— that Nomi was making and selling exquisitely beautiful authentic French macarons.  What I read conjured up the image of a cute little shop popping up for Christmas, with a perky young woman who looked like Martha Quinn in a demure yet fetching elf costume* selling colorful cookies to people who gratefully popped them into their mouths on the spot and lit up with delight.  It was a lovely Christmas shopping fantasy, holiday commercialism on the Mag Mile at its most charming.

Unfortunately, it proved to exist only in my head.  The reality was that we entered the forbiddingly quiet Park Hyatt and looked around for macarons; not seeing any, we asked for Nomi, and rode the elevator to the 7th floor, where Nomi at lunchtime was as lively as a law library.  Once there, we asked for the macaron shop, and it was explained to us that there was no shop, but they sold them at the desk in the lobby.  We were, kindly, escorted back down and shown the very pretty display of macarons above, and we saw the price, which was, a dozen for $36.  A quick calculation ran through my head:

• These could be the best macarons in the world
• On the other hand, the best macarons in the world are probably in Paris
• And I’m sure not getting back to Paris any sooner by spending $36 for twelve cookies right now

Besides the price, there was just something dead about buying a dozen macarons from the hushed marble lobby of the Park Hyatt, like it was the Tomb of the Unknown Macaron, that seemed the ultimate buzzkill to my charming Christmas fantasy.  So we thanked them, and took a pass, and went on our way.

Maybe I’ll learn to make macarons sometime.

* If you don’t think Martha Quinn was by far the hotter of the two original female MTV veejays, I have nothing to say to you.

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