Martini Ranch, a legendary neighborhood gathering spot for Chicagoans over the last 20 years, closed its doors in early 2012, much to the chagrin of thousands of people who had come to love the iconic bar. Because of this history, Rockit Ranch under the leadership of Billy Dec, decided to purchase the property with the idea of turning it back into something special that might become its own iconic hotspot – not a replacement for Martini Ranch but something exciting and new with the same vibe.
Enter one of River North’s newest hot spots, ¡Ay Chiwowa!
I recently had the pleasure of being invited to ¡Ay Chiwowa! to check out the space, sample some cocktails, and eat my way through some of the new menu. All I can say is, ¡Este bar es increíble!”
First, the décor. ¡Ay Chiwowa! has four environments, a bar and dining room, a club room with a bar, a lounge, and an outdoor patio garden. The design itself is minimal with a large focus on the bar and back bar display. The canvas of the space is very neutral, black, white, and gray, layered with moments of bright vibrant color reflective of Mexico. Rockit Ranch has covered the walls with graffiti art, reminiscent of what you might see all over Mexico in bars and taverns. One of my favorite areas is the club room with its bright red booths and the cool, funky skull-covered wallpaper.
The liquor menu is extensive and exciting for anyone into tequila – over 90 different varieties. There are kegs of their specialty craft cocktails and ten different Mexican beers on draft. Only if you’re a wine drinker will you possible be disappointed since there are only two – a red and a white. But even if you do like wine, give it up for an evening and try some of their tasty cocktails like the Copa de Nada (which is clearly not a cup of nothing, consisting of Disaronno, Bacardi Coco, Bacardi Oakheart, Cazadores Añejo, Bacardi 8-year, pineapple juice, and fruit salsa topper), the White Chocolate Piña Colada (surprisingly not too sweet, concocted from Bacardi Coco, Godiva White Chocolate, pineapple juice, cayenne pepper, and a pineapple triangle), or perhaps the Chupacabra (crafted from Cazadores Reposado, passion fruit tea, Grand Marnier, pineapple shrub, lemon grass syrup, and lavender spice). Really, it’s hard to go wrong with the super drinks. Oh . . . and let's not forget about the AY Margarita - one of the best I've tasted in a very long time.
¡Ay Chiwowa! is clearly a bar, not a restaurant. You will not find any restaurant tables or place settings, just high tops and bar stools. Knowing that, the biggest surprise of the evening for me was the food. Amazing!
Rockit Ranch’s president, Arturo Gomez, flew his father in from Mexico to help craft the menu. Everything is served in relatively small portions, a perfect type of presentation for sharing or for creating your own tapas-like experience. In my opinion, they are serving up some of the best Mexican food dishes you’ve ever tasted–sober, or maybe not so sober.
It’s hard to know where to begin, but for starters make sure you sample the Guacamole – a good old standby in most Mexican restaurants but ¡Ay Chiwowa! makes some of the best I have had. Next, forget your arteries and order at least one serving of the Chicharrones (traditional rustic pork rinds). Since you will now have both on the table, try dipping the Chicharrones in the Guacamole. ¡Múy sabroso!
For Tacos (served two per order), be sure to try the Al Pastor (pork marinated with achiote seasoning, pickled onion, pineapple purée, cilantro) and the Shrimp (adobo shrimp, corn tomato cream, pickled onion, cilantro). Other menu standouts are the Gomez Shrimp (three jumbo shrimp marinated in a special secret sauce created by Arturo’s father, yellow mustard, and fried onion) as well as the mammoth Churros for dessert, served with hot cajeta dipping sauce.
One of the most interesting sets of menu items, however, are the Tortas. The traditional bolillo bread used for tortas in Mexico is something that Arturo Gomez could not find in Chicago. He went to Mexico and shipped samples back to his preferred bakery in Chicago, asking them to replicate the bread as closely as possible. After several attempts, they finally settled on a recipe that (according to Arturo), most closely duplicates the Mexican bread. At ¡Ay Chiwowa! you will likely find some of the most authentic tortas in the city.
Despite the assertion that they wanted to create a “dive bar,” Rockit Ranch has really created something that is far classier than that phrase suggests. For those who love the “dive bar” concept, don’t despair. There are still elements of that kind of energy – the pitchers of beer, the 90 ounce margarita, and most of all – the rare and coveted 5 a.m. liquor license on Saturdays.
But ¡Ay Chiwowa! also offers something for nearly everyone – proximity to the Brown Line, great food, excellent drinks, a vibrant exciting atmosphere, a digital jukebox, live DJs on weekends, and most of all a new soon-to-be iconic hot spot for late-night fun in River North.