Chicago’s diagonal streets mean that the city has a fair share of oddly shaped buildings—and businesses with unusual layouts—but I’ve never seen one embrace its triangular configuration as completely as Estereo, the Latin-inspired cafe and bar at the pointy intersection of Milwaukee and Sacramento that Heisler Hospitality opened this summer. Not only does the bar itself form a triangle, following the lines of the walls, but the track lighting is also arranged in concentric triangles. Glass-paneled garage doors dominate two of the three sides, flooding the space with light and, when the doors are open in warm weather, turning the place into the closest thing to alfresco drinking you can accomplish indoors.
Estereo is a cafe by day, bar by night, opening at 8 AM (11 on the weekends) and not closing until 2 AM (3 AM on Saturdays). Of course, you can order a breakfast cocktail if you’d like; I’d go with the one called Coffee, a sweet and creamy concoction made with Batavia Arrack, Averna, coconut horchata, and Dark Matter Chocolate City coffee. It’s representative of the approach Michael Rubel and Ben Fasman, both veterans of the Violet Hour and Big Star, have taken with the 11 cocktails on the menu: simple and straightforward, most of them limited to four ingredients. And while some of those ingredients will be new to the average consumer, the drinks themselves are extremely approachable.
Missing entirely from the menu are whiskey, gin, and vodka; instead, there are dozens of rums, tequilas, and mezcals, along with lesser- known Latin American spirits like pisco, cachaca, and rhum agricole. The simplicity of the cocktails highlights their base spirits—one per drink—which in most cases is also the name of the cocktail. The one dubbed Mezcal, with hibiscus tea, Cocchi Americano Rosa, and lime juice, is smoky, savory, fruity, and effervescent; it’s one of two drinks on the menu that’s made in batches and carbonated. The other, called Pisco, pairs a mixture of four different piscos with ginger juice, guava puree, lime juice, and grapefruit bitters for a sweet-sour drink that goes down as easily as a Moscow Mule.
While I hate to insult pisco by comparing it to vodka, the drink is a good example of the way Estereo is introducing potentially unfamiliar spirits by putting them in familiar-tasting drinks. Another is the cocktail made with rhum agricole, a type of rum distilled from sugarcane rather than molasses that’s typically grassier, funkier, and less sweet than traditional rum. That funkiness comes through in an autumnal creation made with apple cider, falernum (a spiced syrup usually made with almonds, ginger, and citrus zest), and spiced pear liqueur—but the funk is tempered by the drink’s fruity, spicy flavors.
Our bartender recommended the beer cocktail as well, which turned out to be my favorite of the bunch. Made with rum, pistachio orgeat, creme de cacao, and Rubrique-a-Brac (a wild biere de garde from the south-side brewery Whiner), it’s creamy, nutty, and a bit tart, with a funkiness that reminds me of blue cheese. The beer is one of four on tap, including a rotating selection from Three Floyds, plus three in cans and one cider. Really, though, the simple, graceful cocktails are the reason to go. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to enjoy a cocktail without overthinking it. v