Serious Eats: Chicago
Head to Xoco for the Best Hot Chocolate in Chicago
My first high school Spanish textbook was named Churros y Chocolate. Though I loved the language, due to an overbearing teacher whose pronunciation I'm pretty sure most Mexicans would have made fun of or mistook for Italian, I abhorred the class. While she droned on like the teachers in the Peanuts cartoons, I'd spend hours in class gazing at the book, imagining myself indulging in the piping cup and crispy cinnamon-crusted stick pictured on the cover.
Though I'd never been to Mexico or Spain at the time, I'd figured if nothing else, learning the language would enable a day in which I'd finally meet that cup of chocolate in some public square or on some street corner in Oaxaca. Instead, all it has done is led me to watery Swiss Miss-like champurrado and old, fried steroid-era-Jason Giambi-sized churros stored under heat lamps and filled with gelatinous artificially flavored goop.
In the non-Mexican arena, I'd been able to mix up some pretty stellar hot chocolate at home via some Gale Gand recipes, and had some beautiful cups at the aptly named Hot Chocolate from Mindy Segal here in Chicago. But while those experiences were much closer to the "luxuriating at the café" one I desired, I'd thought of them as strictly late night dessert experiences. What I really wanted was a "before work" breakfast spot, an alternative to my daily coffee fix on par with the cups I'd drink at local craft-roasters Intelligentsia and Metropolis.
Then along came Xoco, Rick Bayless' refined Mexican street food experience. There's no question the succulent pibil and the Mexican answer to the French dip, pork carnitas-filled ahogada, are first class; however, it's the Xoco hot chocolate that got me.
While the Gand and Segal versions were pretty nuanced and extraordinary, the Bayless cup full of acidity and tingly grace notes is one of the freshest I've had. Xoco takes fermented cacao beans from Tabasco, roasts them, grinds them, and then blends the grind with sugar and cinnamon. The freshness is pretty unequaled. What's more amazing is that a cup of the stuff, depending on the flavor and preparation, is only $2 to $3. In the era where Starbucks has conditioned us to pay $3 or $4 for coffee that comes from the push of a button on an automatic machine that grinds and brews pre-roasted beans, Bayless probably could have charged double and gotten away with it.
Add the Xoco churro, a delicate light cinnamon, sugar, and cocoa-dusted number fried to order, and I've finally realized my dreams.