Four Things You Must Do in Chicago During The NRA Show

So you’re in Chicago for the NRA Show and you want to know all the cool spots to check out in your free time? I’m not a local but I visit Chicago quite a bit on business and the below destinations come highly recommended. (click the restaurant names for a link to their site)

Xoco

Rick Bayless’s Xoco is shaping the future of the fast casual industry – and the food is just plain awesome. This is a mandatory stop every time I am in Chicago and I *highly* recommend checking it out.  What should you order?

Ahogada – this torta – served sitting in a bowl of tomato broth, is one of the signature items on the menu.

Caldos – the “soups” here – any of them are awesome but in particular I would get the Pork Belly (coming from a full blown pork addict).

Churros w/ Chocolate dipping sauce…. Heavenly.

Also – check out the acqua frescas – I recommend the one with Hibiscus

Sunda

Billy Dec and the Rockit Ranch crew (one of Chicago’s biggest restaurant players) really outdid themselves when they created Sunda (great video about Sunda’s creation here). This beautifully designed Asian fusion restaurant sports a massive menu, including a full sushi bar, of delicious food.

Must order…

the Peared Sake – literally tastes like you are drinking a chilled pear – I get this every time.

The menu is so huge picking favorites is like picking children – but I would say the Cripsy Rice with Tuna is one of my favs, along with the Rock Shrimp Tempura.

The Doughnut Vault

A well hidden food craze in Chicago. This entire restaurant is jam packed into literally a hallway in the back of a building. You won’t even see the building walking by, but you can’t miss the line of people pouring out the door. They tweet how long the line is and what doughnuts they are running out of so make sure to keep an eye on them @doughnutvault so they don’t run out!

If you want to hit these guys up, they are CLOSED on Sunday/Monday so keep that in mind. Well worth making the journey for their delicious and oversized doughnuts.

Big Star

An awesome bar and tex mex joint in Chicago’s Wicker Park. The food is great (you won’t believe how tiny their kitchen is) but you really go for the atmosphere. Great place to sit and have a drink and a few tacos for happy hour.

The thing to order here is a glass of Templeton Rye. A small batch rye native to Iowa and tough to find anywhere but the Midwest – one of the smoothest and most delicious rye whiskies you will ever drink. Templeton Rye was the choice drink for none other than Al Capone who actually bootlegged it for a number of years during prohibition.

Their food menu is short and sweet but their whiskey menu is deep.

Hope you enjoyed my suggestions! Let me know what you think in the comments and on Twitter and enjoy NRA 2012!

Devouring 9 Restaurants In 22 Hours – Lessons In Fast Casual From Our Chicago Adventure

This past weekend I traveled with the Fresh Hospitality crew up to Chicago to visit a few friends and scout out some fast casual spots to see what the competition was up to. Our gracious hosts for the weekend were Chicago native Billy Dec and Dave Gilbert of the National Restaurant Association.

I will spare you the gory details but from the time our plane touched down around 5pm until we took off at 3pm the next day – we ate at a grand total of nine different restaurants.

We scoped out several Mexican concepts to see how the competitors stacked up to Little Donkey (our new Mexican concept) but I wanted to share my thoughts on two particularly impressive Fast Casual competitors that we visited. Roti Mediterranean Grill and Rick Bayless’s new Mexican fast casual concept – Xoco.

I am a very strong believer that restaurants live and die on their identity. Both concepts knew what they wanted to be to their guest and executed flawlessly.

Roti

http://roti.com/

I thought that Roti did a nice job. They were fast, friendly, and the food was very good. They are definitely a legitimate competitor in the Mediterranean space . The kabob plate was a really good, well thought out plate of food. The sandwich was great too. Roti is centered around a “build your own” menu (similar to Chipotle) where you take 1 protein and have it on a sandwich, plate, or salad etc. The chain has 12 locations in Chicago and DC and is founded by Bill Post (former president of Levy Restaurants). Store was very busy, line almost out the door when we walked in and it took ~4 minutes to clear the entire line. Very fast and streamlined operation. Food was tasty and relatively healthy. No tipping option available, which more and more fast casual concepts seem to be migrating towards.

Despite the manager and staff’s objections that “no photos were allowed” I managed to snag several good shots of their store and the lunch crowd.

Chipotle Style Build-Your-Own Menu

Busy Line (Under 4 Mins Wait)

A few shots of their line

 Making Fresh Flatbreads

Food – Sultan Sandwich

Food – Chicken Kebab

Food – Chicken Salad

XOCO

http://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/xoco.html

As far as Xoco, there is no doubt who they are and what they are trying to be to their guest. What intrigues and impresses the hell out of me about Rick Bayless is how he can put three Mexican restaurant side by side and pull it off. Fast casual (Xoco) casual (Frontera Grill) Topolobampo (fine dining) Why does this work? Because all of these brands have an identity, it’s called Rick Bayless, and what he stands for . He sources his food right. He has great recipes. He cooks one type of cuisine… Mexican.

It doesn’t matter how he delivers the food to his guest, whether its fine dining or you have to stand in line. What matters is his reputation of delivering high quality food, sourced right and great recipes and it’s all about Mexico. You will not find Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza on his menu. He does one thing and does it well. Another thing that boggles my mind – there isn’t a single taco or burrito on the menu at Xoco. A couple operational notes I made as well below.

The aftermath…

SEATING

Xoco used bar seating to accommodate a large number of seats in a very tight area. Something to consider for spacing constraints or seating limitations going forward. This pic doesn’t capture it perfectly but I’m telling you they packed about 20 seats into what most people would consider a winding hallway.

CHALK BOARDS

Xoco extensively used chalk boards all over the store to tell its story and convey important information to the guests, often used chalk boards in the line itself so customers could read about the local sources of food etc while in line.

CUSTOMER LINE / VISIBLE COOKING & PREP

Xoco did a fantastic job making their entire cooking and prep process visible to customers, the structure of the line forced customers to walk by as employees were making fresh dough, cooking food, etc – showing that they are proud of their cooking and they want to display how fresh and homemade everything is. You can also see from the pictures that the kitchen is exposed on the outside so people walking by can also peer in and see the fresh food being cooked.

Both of these brands really showcase the direction that fast casual is moving in. Restaurants with a strong identity that know exactly what they want to be to their guest and focus on executing top quality food at a very high level.

Let me know what you think below and Follow Me on Twitter to hear about my adventures in real time.