The elevated train thrums overhead. Every sidewalk grease patch and water stain starts to look like dried puke. Trash blows down Chicago Avenue; condo dwellers hail cabs. The sky darkens. The overgrown children of River North rub empty stomachs, wet cracked lips. Stoplights change, a lime squeezes into a bottle of Corona, a round of shots is ordered. A hungry city wonders: Who is Billy Dec?
Billy Dec is a local restaurateur, the proprietor of Rockit Ranch Productions, which isn’t a porn studio. His stable of businesses encompasses Rockit Bar & Grill, Sunda, the Underground, Dragon Ranch, and now ¡Ay Chiwowa!, which rises from the ashes of Martini Ranch, where Dec worked in college. It’s a sort of tribute: when Dec and his partners, Brad Young and Arturo Gomez, heard Martini Ranch was closing, they determined to do right by its memory and establish this clubby “tavern,” the specific flavor of which was actually crowdsourced. A question was posed online: What kind of bar would Rockiteers like to see? The people, who seem to work in corporate communications, spoke: “a play on ‘dive bar’ comfort and accessibility with a Mexican cocktail and food component.”
I learned all this on the restaurant website, which links to Dec’s own; he’s a relentless, relentlessly chapeaued civic booster who promotes events across a variety of media, including Windy City Live! Billy Dec is a dynamo wrapped up in a mystery wrapped up in a piece of bacon, coated in melted cheese.
Speaking of which, let me tell you about the queso fundido at ¡Ay Chiwowa!, a name I promise not to punish you with too many more times. ¡AC! could be seen as a River North answer to Big Star, though differences begin with this dish and end a couple thousand miles away, probably somewhere in Sonora. By the time it reaches your table the cheese may have reached terminal coagulation, near impenetrable with the tools you’ve been given: four minitortillas, with the option to order four more for three dollars. This was a particular point of distress among my companions, one of whom pointed out that these are smaller versions of a product available at most Latin grocers at 39 cents for, like, a hundred. The menu suggests that they’re “homemade,” but you’d be challenged to tell the difference.
A general theme pervades: it’s tiny and it’s not very good. Tacos, tortas, taquitos, a couple seafood things, quesadillas—they look to be a great deal, right up till the moment they hit the table. At eight dollars, two shrimp tacos were so puny I wanted to put a jacket on them and feed them a home-cooked meal; with the addition of “corn tomato cream,” they tasted like Krab. Carnitas tacos were bland and watery. “The Gomez shrimp” at least sounded intriguing—mustard is involved. But they’re just a few overcooked shrimp with yellow mustard on them, managing to be far less than the sum of their parts.
“I’ve never been so angry about a quesadilla,” my companion said about a particularly wanting experience one night. That wasn’t all there was to be angry about. We’d come in the middle of what seemed to be a cowboys vs. Indians party, with patrons wearing “headdresses” of the kind that inspire protest on college campuses. They still sell those things? The servers were perfectly gracious, though, sensing we were out of our element. They accommodated us in the way you make sure your grandparents are comfortable in your studio apartment, right after you’ve hidden the ashtrays.
The stated purpose of this food is as follows: “After you’ve gotten all that poppin’ and lockin’ out of your system, (or maybe you’re more of a sprinkler kind of gal) you’re going to need some serious late night grub to recharge your energía.” A little too much poppin’ and lockin’ characterized the cowboys and Indians party, I’m afraid; two vomit sightings—one on the front steps and one in the men’s room—were two more such experiences than I’ve had at a restaurant before. There’s a lot of tequila here, obviously, available by the bottle, and some mixed drinks. The tequila- and vodka-based “Señor Chicharron” includes orange juice and bacon syrup, and it’s about as good as you’d expect. The paloma is watery. The best we had of these drinks is “Billy’s Beerita,” a perfectly inoffensive cocktail that comes with a miniature bottle of Corona plunged into it, upside down. This presents two questions. The first is a matter of science: How come the beer doesn’t cause the drink to overflow? The second is more prosaic: Where the hell do you put your nose?
The good? Well, the fresh, chunky guacamole was great. Tortas—chicken, carnitas—weren’t particularly interesting, but could be enlivened with salsa (three kinds, all mild, but not bad) and hot sauce. The bread is less hamburger bun and more baguette, crisp and chewy and fantastic: ¡Ay Chiwowa! Come for the bread, leave for the atmosphere.
Actually, here’s the best thing about ¡Ay Chiwowa! The first night we went, we escaped afterward to Club Lago, an old-school Italian restaurant and bar just around the corner. They mix an excellent manhattan. The second time, ¡Ay Chiwowa! was closed—so we went back to Lago. The third time, a Saturday night, ¡AC! was closed till 8 PM for a private event—Lago again.
Lago’s antipasto plate made me think about how important atmosphere is to the way you experience food. This dish—a pile of cold cuts, a hard-boiled egg, some pink tomatoes—couldn’t be called exceptional. It was a 50s-era appetizer tray. But nobody noticed, really; we were happy to be there. Nearby, drunk scenesters overpaid for tiny, lousy food, with little to redeem it and little worth redeeming. But plenty of customers to eat it. They come, they go. They wake with dreams of tequila and real estate. The city, ever thrumming, thrums on.