Could it be the Big Star effect? While Paul Kahan's ridiculously popular Wicker Park taco-and-whiskey garage was a novelty when it opened more than three years ago, the idea of the casual Mexican-inspired bar is catching on. River North's Ay Chiwowa (311 W. Chicago Ave. 312-643-3200), Rockit Ranch's trendy take on a taqueria, and Wicker Park's High Noon Saloon (1560 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-227-9339), a Tex-Mex sports bar, both have opened within the past six weeks with plenty of tortillas and tequila to go around. I visited both newcomers to find out which bar packs the most spice.
Both High Noon and Ay Chiwowa took over shuttered bar spaces—High Noon rehabbed the former People Lounge on Milwaukee Avenue, while Ay Chiwowa refreshed the Martini Ranch spot near the Chicago Brown Line—but with different results. High Noon tapped the designer behind restaurants such as Girl & The Goat and GT Fish & Oyster to create a high-ceilinged, airy tavern with funky lamps, chandeliers and bold printed wallpaper. Ay Chiwowa's narrow confines and separate back lounge make the long room feel segmented, and it's hard for drinkers seated at the bar and diners at the tables to interact with each other—not always ideal for the "see and be seen" crowd.
I know it's not just me who thinks that restaurant names are becoming stranger by the day, but that's probably a whole discussion in itself. Ay Chiwowa takes the cake, though, not only for its phonetic spelling of the Mexican region of Chihuahua, but also for the exclamation points surrounding it that indicate just how excited Rockit Ranch must be about its newest hangout. The name High Noon Saloon is less hokey, though still sounds like it could be at home in a theme park food court. The lesson here is that rhyming and vanity punctuation are like habanero peppers—please use sparingly.
Some bars come alive only near midnight; others are best for a post-work hangout or boozy brunch. Ay Chiwowa, with a soundtrack heavy on the Top 40 hits and "I-know-every-word-to-this-song" '90s jams, seems better suited to late-night carousing (a 4 a.m. license doesn't hurt, either). I watched the bar fill after 9 p.m. on a Friday with glam girls-night-out packs and a few men looking to chat them up. Currently, Ay Chiwowa is open Thursday through Sunday, though it will be open seven days a week beginning May 1. High Noon Saloon, on the other hand, is open for weekend brunch, and was full at 7 p.m. on a Friday with a much higher guy-to-girl ratio. Most of those baseball-capped dudes were cursing their March Madness brackets with their eyes glued steadily to the TVs. In a random coincidence, I heard Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" play to enthusiastic crowds at both bars.
Any Mexican-inspired bar worth its weight in salt should make a good margarita. Ay Chiwowa has three versions—the Ay Margarita (available in an "individual" 12-ounce size for $12; "con amigos" 21-ounce size for $20; "party glass" 56-ounce size for $45 or a 90-ounce "fiesta pitcher" for $100)—plus a strawberry-jalapeno margarita ($13) and Billy's Beerita ($15), a Lunazul tequila-and-Cointreau concoction named for Rockit Ranch CEO Billy Dec. While the Ay Margarita was pleasant enough, it was the beerita that had my friend and I intrigued. Our server offered no advice for tackling the tequila-and-ice-filled goblet, which was festooned with an inverted mini Corona bottle and a neon orange bendy straw. Removing the bottle would have led to beer spillage, but sipping the mixture didn't seem to combine the beer and tequila in a proper ratio. I found the Chupacabra ($13 for an individual size)—made with Cazadores reposado tequila, passion fruit tea, Grand Marnier, pineapple vinegar, lemongrass syrup and lavender spice—went down more easily. If I had more raucous plans for the night, I would have dived into Ay Chiwowa's list of 90-plus tequilas available by the shot, bottle or flight. At High Noon Saloon, tequilas, whiskey and other spirits share the spotlight with a solid selection of draft and bottled craft beers, plus five craft cocktails ($9) and four margaritas ($7). The house 'rita seems like a good deal at that price, but the small rocks glass it's served in prevented a plentiful pour. I was more impressed with the Aces and Eight, a Tanteo cocoa tequila-based cocktail with mole flavors that are tempered by the noticeable sweetness of house-made raisin-cola syrup, a bitter Italian herbal liqueur and a garnish of cocoa powder.
The staple Mexican bar nosh, guacamole, was chunky and fresh at both spots, but I wasn't blown away by either bar's house-made chips, which I mistook for bagged varieties. Luckily, two-bite fish tacos ($3 each at High Noon; $8 for two at Ay Chiwowa) were tasty across the board, though I give the decisive edge to the oversize, hot-from-the-fryer tilapia filet I received at High Noon. Ay Chiwowa lost major style points when all of my tacos arrived in cardboard boats reminiscent of a school cafeteria with only a forlorn lime wedge for garnish. And though it reminded me a bit of Chili's, the sizzling iron skillets in which our chicken fajitas ($12) were served at High Noon kept the generous portion of meat and peppers warm as we snacked.
Neither of Chicago's newest Mexican-inspired bars truly delivered the agave- and chili-soaked revelry I expected, but both had redeeming factors. Ay Chiwowa comes through for the late-night crowd in search of tequila and jukebox tunes, while High Noon is a welcome sports-centric addition to a strip of Milwaukee Avenue that could use a few more TVs. This south-of-the-border shoot-out ends in a draw.
Reporters visit bars unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. email@example.com @redeyeatdrinkCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun