Great hot chocolate is not to be trifled with. You’re either serious and willing to wait for it (freshly made with high-quality artisanal chocolate) or you’re not (Swiss Miss). So let’s lay down some simple laws.
Rule #1: No commercial mixes allowed. We’re talking house-made, chocolate-forward, honest-to-goodness hot chocolate. Sugar is not the main ingredient here. The spots on this list know better than to take short cuts with powdered mix.
Rule #2: It must be drinkable. For a short while a few years ago, Starbucks offered a “drinking chocolate” that was so thick and rich it was hallucination inducing. More than a few sips, and you wouldn’t sleep for days, plus you had Oompa-Loompa flashbacks, and it was easier to eat with a spoon (not that I would know anything about that). This is about hot chocolate, not ganache, for cripes sake.
Rule #3: Garnishes a must. Whether a pile of softly whipped cream or bespoke marshmallows (yes, please), this is a lily that I want gilded.
Here are a few of the places around town that meet these exacting criteria:
While all of the hot chocolate here is extraordinary, the Love Potion #9 — made with finely chopped 72 percent single-origin Venezuelan chocolate, passion fruit puree and Kilgus Farms’ whole milk — gets the nod for a romantic Valentine’s Day. ($5.75/8 oz.; $6.75 12 oz.) 1651 N. Wells St., Chicago, 312-624-8540
Not a foot is put wrong at this glorious French-influenced bakery. The hot chocolate is but one example: rich Valrhona chocolate ganache, lightly sweetened with Ellis Family Farm honey. Chef-owner Sandra Holl doesn’t mess around, people. ($3.70/8 oz.; $4.20/12 oz.) 1220 W. Webster Ave., Chicago, 773-883-1313
Hot chocolate at this South Evanston favorite is made to order with your choice of organic cow, soy or almond milk. The Mexican version — with notes of cinnamon, vanilla and cayenne pepper — is spicy and deeply tasty. Hot Chocolate Happy Hour runs from 4-6 p.m., Monday through Friday, which means your drink comes with a choice of an oatmeal or chocolate-chip cookie, or an enormous house-made marshmallow. ($2.75-$4.25) 749 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-868-8863
When a world-famous pastry chef names her restaurant Hot Chocolate, you best believe that the eponymous drink will be simply divine. Eight types of hot chocolate sing their siren song, but if you get more than one, you will explode (but what a way to go). I recommend the Chai, which is 1/3 chai tea, 1/3 Mexican hot chocolate and 1/3 dark hot chocolate, but all so scrumptious. Comes with a house-made marshmallow. ($7) 1747 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, 773-489-1747
There are 10 flavors of hot chocolate from which to choose, including Chai Tea and Mexican, but the Salted Caramel is irresistible. Ground chocolate, a hit of sea salt for balance, and a blend of milk and cream combine with chunks of house-made toffee to make a wondrous elixir. Top it off with one of KAC’s own Salted Caramel marshmallows and we’re talking EPIC. ($5 /7oz.; $8 /13 oz.) 2745 W. Armitage, Chicago, 773-245-1630
Any of their nine varieties of hot chocolate will do the trick, but I have a special spot in my heart for the Mexican hot chocolate, dark Callebaut chips combined with hot milk, a bit of cocoa powder, cinnamon and chile pepper. A pile of fresh Chantilly cream, a sprinkle of cocoa, and bliss is imminent. ($3.95-$4.95) 1907 Central St., Evanston; 1348 Shermer Road, Northbrook; 59 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 847-686-0100
This tiny French café simply could not be more charming, nor this cup of chocolat chaud — topped with a pouf of whipped cream — more soul stirring. Barry Callebaut extra-brut red cacao powder is blended with Dominican-origin 70 percent chocolate ganache, milk, Madagascar vanilla bean, powdered sugar and a pinch of salt. It’s just the thing for a chilly winter morning, especially with a fresh, hot croissant as a go-along. ($5) 600 Davis St., Evanston, 847-905-0491
The vibe doesn’t get much chiller than at this art- and sun-filled café near the Howard Street El stop. Known for their creative coffee and tea drinks, the hot chocolate shouldn’t be ignored. Hot organic milk of your choice (including soy and coconut) is whisked into a chocolate syrup made in-house with Omanene chocolate from Ghana West Africa, and topped with whipped cream and mini chocolate chips. ($2.85-$3.50) 1615 Howard St., Chicago, 773-961-8289
What sets XOCO apart from the pack is that they have a “bean-to-cup chocolate program.” Cacao beans are sourced from Tabasco, Mexico, and then roasted, winnowed and ground on site. Your hot chocolate is made to order with steamed milk (or hot water, for the vegans or dairy-free among us) and organic sugar. I recommend the Almendrado, made with almond milk. And yes, this is thick and rich, but just so damn good. ($3.50) 449 N. Clark St., Chicago, 312-661-1434
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