I have only one excuse for sleeping on Xalos Mexican Grill for so long: I thought it was a national chain. It has no shortage of fans and is always popping up on my food-centric social media feeds but its neon-esque signage and shoulder-to-shoulder proximity to other national fast-casual restaurants in town had me erroneously categorizing it with Qdoba and Chipotle. This has been entirely my loss.
Happily, I had a chance to right this wrong when I recently found myself in the neighborhood of its south side location — “found myself in the neighborhood” is code for spending too much money at Target — and was craving tacos. “Craving tacos” is code for craving tacos. I finally checked out Xalos.
I was pleasantly surprised by the dining room’s decidedly noncorporate atmosphere. The thoughtfully designed interior is fun and festive with vivid, wall-sized Mexican-themed paintings and sparkly starburst light fixtures. The menu is also decidedly noncorporate, complete with a misspelling or two. The ordering process is fast and friendly and, if you’re not dining in, it’s a pleasant place to wait.
The menu is smart and specific — Mexican street food classics, with reasonable prices, and lots of ways to customize. I ordered the birria tacos (3 for $14.95), my husband opted for the burrito con queso with chicken ($14.95), while my daughter opted for a fajita burrito deluxe with steak ($14.95). Our food was made-to-order with minor adjustments — no guac for my daughter, a fact that makes me question my parenting — and delivered quickly with the all-important well-sealed packaging (oily birria consommé always makes me nervous in a car).
The fajita burrito was a hit — well-seasoned and packed with thinly sliced peppers and onions cooked meltingly-soft, bringing earthy sweetness to the hefty bundle of steak, cheese, sour cream, and pico de gallo.
The burrito con queso was a hearty mix of chicken, rice, beans, queso salsa, and cheese tightly swaddled in a flour tortilla. This, like most burritos, was a heavy dish and, after consuming half, we declared it to be two meals. The rest was eaten the next day for breakfast.
I loved my birria tacos. The braised beef is melt-in-your-mouth tender and full of slow-cooked flavor. The consommé is loaded with bits of diced veggies and more importantly, rich beefy flavor. Birria tacos are best right off the griddle and get a bit soggy when they sit for too long, but that didn’t stop me from scarfing one down right out of the bag. For the other two, I gave them a quick crisping session in my air fryer. Sidenote: I don’t get paid by Big Air Fryer, but ever since I bought one, I’ve had a renewed love affair with leftovers.
(Another note about leftovers: I like to over-order when getting take-out but should have used better strategy with Xalos. While I applaud their generosity with avocado and guacamole, those ingredients don’t hold up well over time or in the fridge. Rookie mistake. Next time, I’m asking for these ingredients on the side.)
We returned — I kid you not — two days later. Had Xalos already become a craving? This time we ordered the Mexican Caesar salad ($16.95), the enchiladas picantes plate ($14.95), a Super taco salad ($15.95), and the Torta Loca ($15.95). Online ordering was seamless and ready for pick-up within a few minutes. However, this time, there was a crucial packaging foul. The taco salad, served in a comically large fried flour tortilla bowl does not fit into any take-out container that I’ve ever seen. The dish ended by leaking into the bag and turning much of our packaging into a soggy mess. We hastily transferred the rest of the meal onto plates when we got home. Despite enjoying the dish, I won’t be ordering it again unless I’m dining in.
The Caesar salad, however, will remain on my list. A hearty tossed salad of mixed lettuce, cotija cheese, pepitas, crisp tortilla strips, and a sunny cilantro Caesar dressing is generously topped with steak or chicken. You get the smug sense of virtue that comes from eating a salad, with all the decadent flavors of a taco. If you happen to know the nutritional and/or caloric content of this meaty salad, please keep it to yourself.
My husband enjoyed the enchiladas picantes and they were — as advertised — very spicy. Soft packets of chicken, rice, cheese, beans, and guacamole were also packed with fiery peppers. The vinegary ahogada sauce packs a kicky punch with lots of cumin and smoky chili de arbol. There are four different versions of enchiladas, and my husband has made resolution to try them all. I admire ambition in a man.
My favorite thing from our second feast was the Torta Loca, which I ordered with carnitas. First of all, like most things at Xalos, it’s huge. This overstuffed sandwich is filled with rich, well-seasoned slow-cooked pork, beans, lettuce, avocado salsa, pico de gallo, and cheese. And then the whole thing is blanketed in that devilish ahogada sauce and a decadent dollop of sour cream. Somehow, despite all of the sauce, and cream, and salsa, the sandwich stays together. The bread is just substantial enough to hold up to its insides. Remember my tip about guacamole and avocado on the side? No need here. There wasn’t a single bite left.
Xalos combines the charm and homey authenticity of a local eatery with the ease and affordability of a fast-casual chain, and I can’t believe it has been in my blind spot so long. Author Junot Diaz once said, “We all have a blind spot and it’s shaped exactly like us.” Apparently, I am shaped like a giant taco.
If you go:
Xalos Burrito Express
320 W. 100th Ave., Suite 200
Xalos Burrito Express Midtown
751 E. 36th Ave.
Xalos Mexican Grill
3048 Mountain View Drive, #140
Monday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.