From the moment I sipped my first Topolobampo margarita as an inelegant college grad in the early 2000s, I’ve come to expect that every cocktail I order at a Rick Bayless restaurant (which now includes nine brands and 13 outposts) will be as perennially fresh and pleasing. It’s not an outrageous ask, when you consider that flying in the Bayless orbit begets access to high-caliber ingredients and untapped regional pockets.
At Team Bayless’s latest, a River North basement speakeasy dubbed Bar Sótano, Rick and spirits director/daughter Lanie Bayless aim for something edgier with a market-themed cocktail program and a roster of street-food–inspired bites.
A few steps beyond the blazing torches outside of Three Dots and a Dash, in an alley east of Clark Street, I almost missed the nondescript door labeled Bar Sótano in pink. Downstairs, a splashy mural by artist Juan de la Mora showcases a rooster perched atop a pile of cut agave. The room is anchored by a horseshoe-shaped bar and filled with a mix of high-tops and cushy, low tables. Exposed stone walls nod to the basement’s past life as a Frontera Foods storage space.
Delivered with our waters, a round of complimentary shots (berry-rich hibiscus water, mezcal and lime) was a nice touch, though the two sippers didn’t last the 15 minutes we waited for our server to appear, at which point we’d had plenty of time to peruse the menu.
Lanie and bar manager Roger Landes pay tribute to Mexico’s vibrant food markets across four cocktail categories (fruit stand, botánica, chile stall and fonda) that range from bright and fruity to spicy, savory and obscure.
My date began with Tacos al Pastor, starring roasted pineapple juice, lime juice, cilantro and briny, unaged mezcal washed in chorizo fat—lending meaty depth we wanted more of to counter the drink’s dominant pineapple flavor. The namesake El Sótano was a thirst-quenching elixir, with fresh lime, vegetal green chartreuse and a proprietary mezcal blend sweetened with sassafras-like hoja santa syrup and fresh sugarcane juice. The Pasilla, Orange—a toasty triumph of an Old Fashioned—warmed me clean through, thanks to dried pasilla chiles, añejo tequila, dry curacao and orange bitters.
Rishi Manoj Kumar, until now Frontera's private-dining chef, presides over a dynamic, mostly eat-with-your-hands menu. Though we tasted some intriguing, boundary-pushing nibbles, other elements of the menu fell flat. We dunked crispy corn tlayuda shards in roasted tomato-chile salsa and crunched on nutty imported fried crickets tart with lime, wondering aloud why those addictive critters haven’t caught on Stateside. Pearlescent triangles of raw yellowtail concealed an emerald pool of sweet-spicy poblano liqueur, hoja santa, lime and cilantro.
Perfumed with fried garlic and sprinkled with peanuts, the charred broccoli was reminiscent of Chinese takeout, though it edged on oversalted. Generous salting had the opposite effect on four pork taquitos ahogados. Stacked like Lincoln Logs, the fried corn tortilla shells encased juicy carnitas and tart pickled veggies as they soaked in a magnetic roasted tomato-arbol chile broth that balanced tart-rich umami with the clean heat of arbol chiles.
A hulking Mexican paella, which takes 25 minutes to make, was billed by our server as Sótano’s culinary pièce de résistance. Despite its $38 price tag, the dish noticeably skimped on protein, amounting to a crisp-edged, tomato- and pepper-scented rice cake dotted with half a dozen shrimp and a few morsels of juicy charred chicken thigh.
On the sweet end, the donas con chocolate seemed at war with itself: Yeasty fritters sparred with a complex Mexican chocolate fudge. I went back and forth on whether or not I liked the dish, ultimately deciding I appreciated its savory tang, especially when washed down with an ambrosial, smoky-sweet Morita, Sherry cocktail, with chile-infused cream sherry, mezcal and angostura bitters.
On the cocktail front, the Bayless empire is nine for nine.
Atmosphere: Loud and fun, this subterranean bar offers innovative beverages that are ideal for a post-work romp.
What to eat: The bright, chile-laced sauces are where this street-food–inspired lineup shines brightest. Don’t skip the ambrosial yellowtail in poblano liqueur or the taquitos ahogados in roasted tomato-chile broth.
What to drink: The beverage team leans on a botanical bounty of 20 housemade juices and syrups and dozens of chiles, herbs and spices in this one-of-a-kind drink menu. Order the El Sótano, and keep an eye on inspired daily specials.
Where to sit: Grab a bar seat for more dependable service. Low tables are ideal for a more intimate experience, though it can be challenging to get servers’ attention.