On a recent visit to Chicago I swung by Xoco, superchef and F&W Best New Chef 1988 Rick Bayless’s new fast-food joint. I enjoyed the tortas (Mexican sandwiches)—especially the braised short ribs with caramelized onions, jack cheese and pickled jalapeños, a kind of Mexican steak-and-cheese. But I was even more impressed by the service. When my husband and I got there at noon on a Saturday, the line was out the door. But no one was grumbling, because you could help yourself to free sparkling or still water on tap. Once we got to the counter, we ordered drinks—Intelligentsia coffee for him, hot chocolate for me (made from Mexican cacao beans ground on-premises)—and waited for the OK to place our food order (you can't order until there is seating available). A host then walked us to our seats, and the tortas were delivered to our table 10 minutes later. The system wasn’t perfect—there were a lot of empty chairs around us as the kitchen scrambled to keep up—but there was no searching for a table while balancing food on a tray, and the vibe was serene. How often can you say that about a fast-food restaurant?

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