I’m such a homebody, I dread book tour trips and typically stress about them, and I nearly always return thrilled to have gone and surprised and amazed by what I encountered. Last week was Chicago and the schedule was so tight that I took a taxi from O’Hare straight to the Chicago Tribune’s test kitchen where Monica Eng, formerly a food reporter now on the investigative beat, reverted to her former purview to join me in making an easy Coq au Vin from Ruhlman’s Twenty (I forgot how good it was till I tasted it—haven’t made it since Donna took the pix). I had time for a quick lunch after across the street at The Purple Pig (pig ears and the artichokes), excellent casual place recommended by a twitter friend.

That night there was a great gathering at Butcher & Larder with Rob Levitt and a sausage making demo at his shop with an eager, smart crowd. My Chicago based assistant, Emilia Juocys, took me to The Bristol for a bite after (recommended!).  But it was the next day that the revelation came, and it came out of nowhere.

I did a noon demo at The Chopping Block (curing salmon and bacon, cooking bacon in water!, making ceviche—showing how acid and salt transform food). The chef there turned out to be John Peters, whom I’d met and written about several years ago when I was covering Grant Achatz at Trio and Alinea for my book Reach of a Chef. It was great to see John, and after the demo I said I wanted to check out Rick Bayless‘s Mexican soup and sandwich shop, XOCO, a few minutes away. He said he’d join me, knew a chef there, Shaw Lash, and would let her know we were coming. Someone the day before had told me about the suckling pig torta, and I felt morally obliged to give it a go. It was fabulous, with a killer habanero salsa. Also had a superb Carnitas Caldo, pork-broth-based soup.

But it was Lash, chef for culinary development for Bayless’s restaurants, who brought out the hot chocolate elixers and gave us a lesson in chocolate, and who put this lunch over the top. I’d been writing about chocolate two days earlier, or trying to, reading McGee and others trying to figure it all out, what with the cacao becoming cocoa, fat percentages, conching. I wasn’t getting it. Shaw, pictured above, not only explained, she brought me some cacao beans that they’d roasted there at the restaurant. They’re about the size of a nutmeg. She cracked it open with her fingers and the cocoa nibs fell out. We tasted. She took us downstairs where their conching machine was whirling away.

XOCO is one of the few, if only, restaurants that has one of these machines. The nibs are separated from the skin, then dumped into the machine which grinds them. The friction of the grinding wheels generates the heat.

Eventually, the ground nibs become liquified chocolate, unsweetened and astringent on the tongue. The restaurant will sweeten and thin it, with water or with dairy for heavenly hot chocolate drinks, the likes of which I have never had, though which are common in Mexico, where these beans are from (Tabasco, to be precise, the area where 90% of Mexico’s cacao is grown and fermented, according to Shaw).

Cacao pods on the tree at the plantation in Tabasco/photo courtesy of Shaw Lash

XOCO was followed by a great meal at the Publican, where Paul Kahan and staff had created a fabulous menu inspired by the new book, complete with a touching and expert rendition of my mom’s angel food cake (thanks, Sam Radov for that, and the amazing ice cream that went with it!).

I love Chicago.

The big man on the right is Chef John Peters, and on the left is Brendan Edwards, a chef at Nightwood, who, along with Emilia, had me totally and perfectly placed for my demo. Thank you, Brendan and Emilia (and thanks Brendan for these pix)! Thank you John, Paul, Rob, and special thanks to the impressive Chef Lash for the education in chocolate. Amazing what you can get when you seek out a suckling pig sandwich in Chicago!

If you liked this post on Chicago & Chocolate, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.




23 Wonderful responses to “Chicago, XOCO & Chocolate”

  • JP

    I love the carnitas caldo at Xoco, it’s even hard not to get it in the summer when you might be stuck sitting next to the wood fired oven. The publican meal was great, love that place.

  • Tom Saaristo

    Fantastic! Thank you for a wonderful write up of the city I call home! I only wish I would have had a chance to meet you on this visit! Please come again soon!

  • Wilma de Soto

    Chicago is amazing.
    I like chocolate; especially in the Dominican Republic where one can get desserts made from locally grown cacao.

    Still, it would be wonderful to have a restaurant where they manage to produce vanilla pods and cook with them as well. Put that bug in their ears.

  • John K.

    I’m going to Chicago in December — I now know some places I’ll have to check out. Will you be doing anything similar in Cleveland?

  • Trevor

    Only sort of on topic: is the technique for cooking bacon in water in “Rhulman’s Twenty”?

  • s9

    I just wanted to thank you for coming to Chicago. I saw you at Butcher & Larder and you were a truly inspiration, passionate speaker. Thank you for coming, and for your writing!

  • KristineB

    I was just in Chicago two weeks ago for my birthday and headed straight to Xoco as soon as we got there. I too had the cochinita pibil. That habanero sauce was delicious but dangerous. My favorite is still the Ahogado, which I think is what you had. The pork carnitas in tomato broth. I could bathe in that tomato broth. That’s one recipe I have to have. I did not have the hot chocolate but the churros were fantastic.

  • KristineB

    PS off topic, but I’m going to the Browns game on Sunday and need a recommendation for lunch. Symon’s places are closed or too far out. We want something near the stadium. We went to Melt for the last game. Any other suggestions?

    • David

      There are a handful of reastuarants in Ohio CIty near the west-side market… not right by the stadium, but only a few minute drive. Not sure about hours, but check out Bar Cento, Flying Fig, and/or Momocho.

      Another great place on Superior & East 30th is Superior Pho. Again, a few minutes drive, but they’ll be open and the food is fantastic.

  • Melissa

    Every time I’ve been to Chicago I head straight to Xoco… love the tortas… I’ll have to try the Caldos next. Frontera doesn’t disappoint either – had some out of this world duck flautas there once.

  • Jen

    My husband and I went to Chicago a few months ago for the first time, and we ate at several restaurants in just 3 short days and thoroughly enjoyed every one. I was surprised at how well it stands up to NYC’s restaurant scene. The problem was narrowing down the list to what we could conceivably eat in 3 days. I’m not sure whether I’m disappointed I didn’t see your itinerary before we went, or if it would have just complicated my planning further – but it’s good to keep in mind for the next trip!
    (@Melissa – we did go to Frontera and also had the duck flautas – they were fantastic!)

  • yooj

    Off topic, but in Twenty, the meatloaf recipe does not specify what to do with the bread/egg/milk mixture (the panade). One can guess, probably accurately, but it would be good to revise the recipe to make explict when to incorporate the panade.

  • Andrew Kleinke

    My girlfriend and I went to Chicago this last week and went to The Publican and The Purple Pig for dinner on the 19th and 20th. The Publican was amazing; their duck hearts were a transformational dining experience. In fact, shortly after dinner there, I proposed and she said yes!

    We thought that nothing would top that meal for all of the memories and significance it had, but our final dinner at The Purple Pig that week was truly memorable. Squeezed in between two sets of large dining groups, both sides could not have been more affable or genial to strangers. We had just finished paying for dinner when a group of men bought us champagne and toasted with us to our new engagement.

    We come from Minneapolis, a modest city in comparison to Chicago, but there is something so familiar and friendly in Chicago that my fiancee and I can’t wait to go back and enjoy the amazing food and people that the city has to offer.

  • Malini

    OOOOH! I have one of those machines…now to just find fair trade cacao beans and I will be a happy camper.