(See also: Part one)
Since I ate three noteworthy meals in Chicago, and already chronicled two of them in part one, this post will be shorter. That said, I have to include a gratuitous shot of the biggest package of Reese’s peanut butter cups I have ever seen, at the Hershey store off Michigan Avenue. Half a pound (that’s nearly a quarter of a kilo, for you international folk) apiece!
For dinner on Saturday, we knew we were going to eat at one of Rick Bayless’s restaurants. Topolobampo is just too pricey, but Frontera Grill and XOCO were options. When I was in Chicago for Lollapalooza in 2008, I got to eat at Frontera Grill, and it pains me to this day that I did not take pictures of my food. The 3-hour wait at Frontera Grill made us opt for XOCO, his newest outpost, billed as a quick-service (to be fair, I suppose 45 minutes is “quick” when compared to 3 hours) café serving Mexican street food and snacks.
The format felt a little alien to me, but had the line not been the better part of an hour long, I think it would have made more sense. When we finally got to the counter, we ordered, were given a number, and were led to two seats at a countertop in the dining area. Our chips and salsa were brought out first—their chips are thick and salty, the corniest of corn chips, the way I like them. The salsas are a roasted tomatillo (the green) and a three-chile (the red; my favorite).
Take a deep breath before you read this description and drool at the photo. Picture this: fresh, crusty bread is split in half, spread thickly with refried black beans, and baked to perfection in a wood-burning oven. Pickled onions and chunky guacamole are piled atop one half and sandwiched with the other. A rich tomato broth and a spicy árbol chile sauce are swirled together in a shallow bowl, and the torta is served partially submerged, cut side down, in that piquant elixir. A kiss of chopped cilantro completes this ethereal sandwich-of-the-gods.
Put more simply: I got the ahodaga torta off the menu, hold the pork, add guac and extra beans. But no words can accurately describe the volcanic explosion of flavor that occurred in my mouth from the first taste. The crunch as my teeth broke through the bread, the slurp of the absorbed-and-released chile-tomato broth surging across my palate, the smoosh of the avocado marrying the smooth bean purée, the snap of the cores of softened onion ribbons betwixt my bite, the roar of chile-derived fire searing my tongue, the aahhh of angels singing over my shoulder, the gasp of my taste buds as they had a 15-minute orgasm and collapsed in blissful afterglow.
This is why Rick Bayless is my favorite chef. I know of no one else who can, to this immaculate degree, take such a modest assortment of simple, fresh ingredients and, with just a judicious touch of herbs and fragrant spices, transform them into a dish brimming with astonishingly complex and perfect flavors. It’s alchemy, pure alchemy, precise and flawless.
::Catches breath:: Ok, ok, I must stop; it’s getting warm in here, as it did that night I ate this illustrious repast. So we concluded the experience with churros, cinnamon-sugar-rolled doughnut-like pastries, and a dish of vanilla bean soft-serve ice cream for dipping.
I don’t care how ridiculous I sound; that meal was downright life-changing.
After a stop back at the hostel, Matt and I went to Late Bar in the Avondale neighborhood to meet up with Chiko, another friend from the first leg of my Europe trip whom I hadn’t seen since. It was great to get to hang out with him again, and almost as great to get to drink my first-ever soy white Russian (there, in the middle).
Yes, a vegan white Russian! Then, however, I spotted another drink on the menu I plainly had to have. I’m not a martini gal (or, for that matter, a creamy-alcoholic-beverage gal), but especially after the Mexican feast that was our dinner, I couldn’t possibly pass up a soy horchata martini. Real horchata (a milky, sugary, cinnamon-vanilla Latin American refresca) is made of rice milk, but in the U.S., it’s almost always dairy-based. I couldn’t believe the deliciousness of this soy-based horchata concoction, shaken with vanilla vodka and sprinkled with ground cinnamon. It was even better than the white Russian.
Matt, Chiko, and I then made our way to Club Neo and danced our hearts out till nearly 5 in the morning. It was a spectacular end to a spectacular weekend getaway in Chi-town. I can’t wait to go back!