If I had to pick a large U.S. city and live downtown, Chicago would be near the top of my list. I have a soft spot for the Windy City and love visiting whenever the opportunity arises. Through work and through play I have managed to see Chicago at least once a year since moving to the Midwest. Mr. B lived in the city for several years after college and has a great sense of the streets, making it easy to navigate our way through the neighborhoods and shops. A recent business trip brought Mr. B to town and I tagged along on a quest for baby items. While my head is still spinning from the plethora of infant paraphernalia sold in baby stores, we managed to enjoy a few fantastic meals in the midst of the craziness.
Our favorite place to stay when in Chicago is at the Sofitel, Chicago Water Tower. A gorgeous European style hotel, the Sofitel boasts a sleek minimalist design that manages to be both sophisticated and welcoming. The beds are plush and comfortable (this coming from the constantly tossing and turning pregnant lady!) and the rooms have always been perfectly quiet- a nice break from noisy city streets for those of us who are used to the quiet of cornfields. Fresh flowers fill the lobby and the location is only steps away from all the action on Michigan Avenue.
Despite all of our past travels to Chicago, we had never made it to a Rick Bayless restaurant. This trip we decided to rectify that omission and seek out Mexican cuisine from the master. Late travel plans made it impossible to score reservations at Topolobampo or Frontera Grill. We were in luck, however, as Rick Bayless recently opened a walk-in-only place called XOCO.
Specializing in Mexican style street food done right, XOCO is open early and closes late, creating one of the best spots to grab a quick breakfast in the city. A wood fired oven burns in the corner of the restaurant while a big copper pot filled with hunks of pork shoulder slowly bubbles on the stove. You can watch the staff busily at work behind the counter, using fresh ingredients to create fast and fantastic food. Handmade empanadas, melt in your mouth churros, and a savory breakfast bread pudding compelled us to go back in line to order seconds.
While the breakfast was excellent, what really blew my mind was the hot chocolate. It was my first encounter with a bean-to-cup hot chocolate. The cacao beans are actually ground at the restaurant before they are turned into a rich dark liquid. I have a weakness for spicy Mexican style hot chocolate and the Aztec- a drink made from freshly ground chocolate, water, chile, and allspice- was the best I’ve ever tasted. Like a fine wine or superb espresso, the chocolate had layers of nuanced flavor and a silky texture that was nothing short of intoxicating. If I lived within walking distance of XOCO, they would know my first name by now!
Our second memorable dining experience in Chicago came at The Purple Pig. Recently named one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in the U.S. by Bon Appetite, this restaurant has a big reputation. With a slogan of “Cheese, Wine, and Swine”, I had a feeling that The Purple Pig was my kind of place. Unpretentious tapas style food is served with an attention to detail and flavor which lives up to the hype. Unlike many tapas restaurants, where tapas just means small plates of expensive food that will leave you broke and hungry, satisfying portions of reasonably priced Mediterranean inspired dishes fill the menu. The dimly lit and bustling restaurant encourages conversation between neighboring tables, opening a bottle of wine, and happily tasting your way through one pleasurable dish after another. Milk braised pork shoulder, pork tenderloin saltimbocca, chorizo stuffed olives- it is a pork lovers dream. The dark lighting made it impossible to take photos but the savory pork centric tapas created a memory of flavors that I will not soon forget.