Xoco has been a crowd-pleaser pretty much since it opened. Serving up chef Rick Bayless's fresh and largely locally sourced take on Mexican tortas and caldos, the bustling River North restaurant has provided the casual diner a taste of Frontera Grill flavors without the need for a (hard to get) reservation and at a more affordable (although still slightly wince-inducing) price. But does Xoco welcome the vegetarian diner with such open arms?
For me, the star among the vegetarian dishes at Xoco is the woodland mushroom torta ($9.50). From the crisp bread, to the juicy, garlicky mushrooms, to the creamy goat cheese, this sandwich is packed with big flavors and achieves a superb balance of textures. The woodland mushroom torta also includes black beans (be sure to request the vegetarian ones when ordering; the cashiers usually ask which you want), a handful of spicy arugula, and a small dish of three-chile salsa for dipping. In a crowd of tortas featuring pork carnitas, chorizo, braised shortribs and the like, this filling and robustly flavored mushroom sandwich manages to more than hold its own. Every Xoco fan—herbivore or otherwise—should give this torta a spin.
I found several other vegetarian options to choose from. There was no need to reevaluate Bayless's guacamole; I've had it and really enjoy it. Instead I sampled the chili garlic peanuts ($2), which come with a wedge of lime for adding a hit of brightness into the mix. The skin-on peanuts were toasty warm and expressively flavorful, and the golden-brown chunks of garlic added tons of aroma and bite, but the heat was hard to find. Although the bowl was peppered with cracked chiles, it took munching on one to actually register their contribution of spice. Nevertheless, they're a nice snack to tide you over before the rest of your meal leaves the kitchen.
If you forgo the optional add-ons of pork carnitas or golden-crispy chicken, the Xoco salad ($7.50), presents another vegetarian option. This heaping bowl comes with romaine, arugula, marinated black beans, crispy tortilla threads, grilled red onions, chunks of avocado, and an avocado-lime dressing. Proportionally, the Xoco salad is heavy on the greens (mostly romaine), which is a sort of a shame because the other ingredients are tasty—especially the smoky, well-caramelized onions. With all that leafy lettuce, it was hard for the other flavors to come through.