Knockout Noodles: Pork Belly Vermicelli Caldo at Xoco
Ever since I devoured an intriguing bowl of fideuà at Café Iberico, I've been on the lookout for authentic fideos. This variety of noodle is most commonly seen in Spanish cuisine, although it has also been adopted in Mexican cooking, primarily for noodle soups. And lo and behold, a Mexican noodle soup featuring fideos has been right under my nose, at Rick Bayless's ever-popular Xoco.
I say right under my nose because Xoco has been one of my go-to lunch spots since the busy River North restaurant began firing its tortas, caldos, and housemade hot chocolates. But it's been hard to pull myself away from the tasty tortas in order to sample its broth-based offerings. Well, it was until I read the description for Xoco's pork belly vermicelli (fideos) ($12): crispy-tender pork belly, toasty-tender noodles, woodland mushrooms, zucchini, avocado, salsa negra. Unlike the noodles Café Iberico deploys for its fideuà (an Italian wheat noodle, almost certainly bucatini), the vermicelli in this caldo are in fact fideos. The Xoco kitchen treats them in a traditional manner, pre-toasting the noodles prior to their incorporation into the caldo's hot broth.
The technique helps the earthen-colored noodles to keep their resilience amid their steamy surroundings, ensuring a pleasing bite and what you might call the imprint—or, if you're feeling more poetic, the memory—of being lightly toasted in a pan.
Needless to say, the noodles were outstanding, with a slightly granular texture and deep, nutty flavor. But here they are just one of many perfectly rendered components. The slabs of fork-tender pork belly, marked on the grill for some added smokey notes, were so generous in size and number, you'd think Xoco was having a clearance sale on the stuff. The zucchini, quartered and sliced into roughly inch-long wedges, had all the bright-green flavors you'd hope for in a fresh summer squash. Same for the spicy arugula. And I really enjoyed the play of the meaty, slightly sweet pork broth with the occasional spoonful of creamy avocado—two of the finest fats of the animal and plant kingdom, united.
When the bowl first arrived, I couldn't help but think of its visual parallels to ramen. But after tasting the broth and experiencing the magic of the toasted fideos, I knew that this caldo is on its own unique orbit. And although a Japano-Mexican noodle-soup mashup concept very well may be genius waiting to happen, there's no good reason to muck with this recipe.