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Roasted chili cumin chicken with pickled red onions

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Blue Kitchen

(Read caption) Roasted chili cumin chicken with pickled red onions.

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At some point, I’m not sure when, Mexican restaurant food became relegated to comfort food status for us. Something we could count on to be reliably good, filling and cheap, but no longer something we got a hankering for. It wasn’t always this way. At one point, Marion and I ate at a Mexican restaurant in our neighborhood at least once a week for a year or more. In fact, we went there on our wedding night.

Now, though, it’s comfort food. And that in itself is not a bad thing – sometimes, the baskets of chips, the familiar flavors and friendly, relaxed atmosphere that are part of the package deal are exactly what you want. Add some friends and cocktails and you’re set for a good evening.

What’s changed for us is not so much Mexican food (at least as practiced by many, many, many restaurants in the US) – it’s what we expect from dining out. Anything beyond comfort food or fast food or cheap take out, we want some single bite of whatever we’re eating to stop us in our tracks, to make us interrupt the conversation at the table with “Omigod.” Quickly followed by “You have to taste this.” That’s what we weren’t getting from Mexican food.

Until Marion went to XOCO. To be fair, Chicago chef Rick Bayless has long fought stereotypes of Mexican fare with his popular upscale restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. And with his cooking shows and numerous cookbooks. But it’s XOCO (SHO-co), his take on Mexican street food, that’s been exciting everyone since it opened in September 2009. So much so that the thought of the typical lines and crowds at Bayless’s restaurants kept us away until recently (well, Marion, that is – I still haven’t gotten there).

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