Chicago. It’s a city that, on the right day, has the scent of chocolate wafting through the air –curtesy of Bloomer Chocolate Company– and often has a windchill that can cut you straight to the bone. Combine those two variables and my brain instantly wants hot chocolate.
I had a gut feeling that Chicago had to be a hot cocoa mecca, and after a swift Google search I found I was right. I easily found six articles published in the last three years by reliable food and travel sources that listed the best places to get hot chocolate in Chi Town.
Timeout, Zagat, Urban Matter, Culture Trip, Chicago Tribune, and Eater collectively found 37 locations around the city that quote unquote have the “best hot chocolate”. I have no doubt that even more hot cocoa huts exist throughout the city, but only five out of these 37 places mentioned made it onto four or more of the six coveted lists.
Thus my Cocoa Quest of 2019 was born. I took it upon myself to try these five hot chocolates and figured out which Chicago cocoa reigns supreme. I mentally compared each cocoa by their cost, drinkability, overall consistency from start to finish, and presentation.
Honorable mentions– locations that made it onto at least two of the lists– include: Vol. 39 (Loop: 39 S. LaSalle), Bar Cargo (River North: 605 N. Wells St.), Caffe Umbria (two locations; Logan Square: 2545 W. Armitage), Baptiste & Bottle (Streeterville: 101 E. Erie), Cocoa + Co. (Old Town: 1651 N. Wells), Intelligentsia Coffee (many locations; Millennium Park: 53 E. Randolph), and Milagro El Taqueria (many locations; Pilsen: 3050 W. 26th)
Mindy’s Hot Chocolate (Wicker Park: 1747 N. Damen)
Cost: $11.00 (five other non-traditional cocoas available for $8.00)
Pros: A cup of nostalgia topped with a homemade mallow
Cons: Too pricey and a little too sweet
Ask anyone in Chicago and they will tell you Mindy’s has “the best hot chocolate” hands down. I needed to see if the Chicago masses were right. Mindy’s has six hot chocolates on their menu, five of which are $8.00 and one of which– The Old Fashioned– is $11.00. I had to get the Old Fashioned because why mess with something deemed classic?
This cocoa is a Hallmark Movie in a cup. It might honestly be a little too sweet and wholesome but, for some reason, you can’t stop going back for more. It wraps you in a hug of nostalgia while also containing a complexity that can’t be ignored.
Each sip is a little different. It is the creamiest cocoa and managed to keep its liquid integrity even as it cooled. Topped with a dollop of ganache whipped topping and a homemade marshmallow, you get pangs of intense sweetness and tart bitterness within the first few sips. When you’re in the middle of the cocoa, its that wistful sugary flavor you remember from snow days as a kid. The bottom of the cup has bites of dark chocolate, assumedly because the chocolate has settled near the bottom.
I can see why so many consider this the best hot chocolate in the city, however I personally would have preferred a more consistent flavor all the way through the experience. Part of me was also put off by the fact that the hot chocolate was $5.00 more than every other classic cocoa I tried. The supply and demand for the beverage is the only explanation I find suitable for the cost, and really that’s not quite enough to justify it for me.
XOCO (River North: 449 N. Clark)
Pros: Traditionally made and a bang for your buck
Cons: Inconsistent consistency
XOCO is a very unexpected location for hot chocolate to be a star item on the menu. A Mexican fast food-style restaurant– not in quality, just in speed– they have an entire section of their menu dedicated to bean-to-cup chocolate.
What does that mean, you might ask? XOCO literally makes everything that goes into their cocoa from scratch– even the chocolate bar used in the hot chocolate is made on-site. There are five cocoas to choose from, from the Authentic to the Mexico City Thick, and all are under $4.00. I didn’t think a decent and cheap cup of cocoa was possible in Chicago and especially not in River North, but since XOCO cuts out the middleman by making their own chocolate, it makes sense.
I went with XOCO’s Classic, a combination of XOCO’s fresh-ground chocolate, whole milk, and sugar. When the waiter brings you your cocoa, they’ll have an empty white mug in one hand and a small silver pitcher in the other. They set down the mug and slowly pour the cocoa for you. They say enjoy and leave you to your liquid chocolate. Simple.
There are no artisan marshmallows, whipped toppings, or powders to distract you from what’s in front of you and I think that’s ballsy and beautiful. It shows sureness in the drink they’ve placed in front of you and for that, I applaud them.
The cocoa tastes like a liquified dark chocolate bar and is probably the most bitter of the cocoas on this list. I can’t say this is a bad thing seeing as a cloyingly sweet cup of cocoa is near to impossible to finish.
As the cocoa beings to cool, you realize how serious they are when they say fresh-ground chocolate. The cocoa becomes sludgier and almost ganache-like in consistency. There’s a graininess too that likely comes from the mixing of the sugar with the milk and chocolate.
This was not the best cup of cocoa– I’ll tell you this now– but it was solid, traditional, and confident. I would likely go back due to the affordability, proximity to my job, and my curiosity in experiencing the Mexico City Thick.
Bittersweet Pastry Shop (Lakeview: 1114 W. Belmont)
Pros: You get almost two full cups of high-end cocoa for only $6.00
Cons: It’s more of a decadent dessert than a hot chocolate. It’s very rich, so much so that one order can easily be split between two people.
If you are looking for decadent, opulent, and seductive hot chocolate, Bittersweet Pastry Shop is where you’ll find it. This hot chocolate has Audrey Hepburn-like class. Presented to you in a white ceramic pitcher with a dusting of cocoa powder on top, it looks almost too good to drink.
A slight hint of cinnamon floats up from the cocoa as you pour it into your sturdy paper-brown ceramic cup–again on a class level I didn’t know cocoa possessed. The subtle scent of spice is followed by aromas of dark chocolate that almost smell like coffee. As the cocoa pours you know it’s made of frothed cream, similar to the milk poured on top of cappuccinos but much thicker.
Drinking this hot cocoa is like drinking a hot chocolate mousse. It has the same luscious velvety texture that coats your mouth in chocoholic bliss. As the dusting of cocoa mixes with the hot chocolate it becomes reminiscent of the little bits of crystallized cocoa that don’t fully dissolve when you make a packet of instant Swiss Miss with warm milk. It’s a nice nod to childhood memories and adds some bitterness to the sweet creamy cocoa.
When you get closer to the bottom of the pitcher there seems to be an orange citrus note. I’m pretty convinced there is actual orange zest in the cocoa after running into a few bits near the bottom. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the addition of orange, but the acidity does help cleanse your pallet ever so slightly after all of the richness.
While this was a cocoa experience I won’t soon forget, I have to say the serving is too much for one person. Since the cocoa is a thicker consistency than a standard cup of hot chocolate, it cools down faster than you would like. Combined the level of indulgence with the lukewarm temperature and the second cup becomes a bit lackluster.
BomboBar (Old Town: 1529 N. Wells)
Cost: $5.00 ($6.00 with a donut topper)
Pros: A perfectly balanced hot chocolate that I could drink by the bucket-load
Cons: The Instagram-able Chocoholic and Funfetti Hotter Chocolates overshadow the real star
When you search BomboBar’s hot chocolate online, the Chocoholic and Funfetti Hotter Chocolates are the first things that pop up. These cocoas are $11.00 and covered in insane toppings like Rice Krispie treats, Pop Tarts, sour rainbow belts, and waffle cones. They’re a little kid’s dream and a parent’s nightmare all in one.
I was skeptical before walking through BomboBar’s door because these two crazy cocoas made it feel like an Instagram trap. You know the restaurants: they take a dish and deck it out to the extreme just to blow customer’s minds, but the actual food hidden underneath is subpar.
Thankfully, BomboBar serves a Classic Hotter Chocolate for $5.00; $6.00 if you want to add one of their bombolonis (a small hole-less donut). The classic cocoa is served in a brown paper cup and topped with whipped cream, chilled chocolate chips, and served with a red straw. I added the donut to see if the decorative sweets decking out their other cocoas were worth the hype.
I appreciate that BomboBar still served their hot chocolate in a paper cup even though I wasn’t taking the hot chocolate to go. It gave it a more approachable vibe than some of the classier presentations I experienced on this adventure.
Everything about this hot chocolate is perfect. It’s so flawlessly balanced that you can keep drinking it without feeling like you’ll go into diabetic shock or explode from a dairy overload. The fact that the chocolate chips are chilled on top is essential. As you take a sip through the straw, there’s a perfect balance of warmth, creamy, bitter, and sweet. You get a cool hit of the classic whipped cream and then cold hard chocolate. It adds texture without taking away from the cocoa’s integrity. The donut definitely wasn’t necessary– I’m not sure donuts ever are– but it was light and airy and covered with sugar so there were no complaints from me.
I walked in convinced this would be a lipstick on a pig situation. If you want the wow factor go for the crazier Hotter Chocolates, but please know that hidden underneath all of the Hotter Chocolate glam is a naturally beautiful cup of hot chocolate that should put away the FaceTune and rock her badass self.
Katherine Anne Confections (Logan Square: 2745 W. Armitage)
Cost: $5.00 (for 7 oz.)
Pros: Textural epic-ness
Cons: Smallest cup of cocoa
Katherine Anne Confections is first and foremost a chocolate shop. The whimsy that naturally comes with making candy translates into their hot chocolate– or drinking chocolate as they call it on their menu.
There are twelve different cocoa flavors to choose from and five different marshmallow flavors too. You get to be a hot chocolate mad scientist when you order here and that alone is fun.
I ordered the milk drinking chocolate and topped it with the Vanilla Bean marshmallow. I was intrigued by the Earl Grey marshmallow but wanted to make this cup as classic as I could. There are two cocoa sizes you can choose from at Katherine Anne’s, either the 7 oz. or 13 oz.; you get to add two marshmallows if you go with the larger size. I went with the smaller size seeing as I was there to try the hot chocolate and not indulge in it.
Small chocolate crisps are added alongside the marshmallow to top off the cocoa. They’re reminiscent of the crispy bits inside of a Crunch Bar and give a nice textural element, but seem to add a saltiness to the hot chocolate that’s unfortunately unpleasant after a few sips.
The cocoa itself is velvety and has a hint of cinnamon, but is slightly too rich and thickens as it cools. There’s also not enough cocoa in the 7 oz. to balance out the marshmallow. The hot chocolate becomes a half-melted gooey mess before you’re even finished.
While there’s a lot of personal and creative freedom when you order at Katherine Anne’s, I’m not sure I’d go back unless I was going for the decadent chocolate confections.
And the winner is…
BomboBar’s Classic Hotter Chocolate!
2nd: Mindy’s Old Fashioned Hot Chocolate
3rd: XOCO’s Classic
4th: Bittersweet’s Hot Chocolate
5th: Katherine Anne’s Milk Drinking Chocolate
Seriously, I walked into BomboBar thinking it would be at the bottom of my ranking. I walked out wanting to go back for another cup instantly.
It’s reasonably priced, perfectly balanced, and just makes you happy while you’re drinking it. Way to go BomboBar; your cocoa has become a lifelong favorite of mine.
Don’t agree with my choice or have another place you think should have made the cut for the Cocoa Quest? Add a comment below.