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DOWNTOWN — Nestled along the Chicago River is a bright pink oasis hoping to transport customers to a tropical vacation with its margaritas, agua frescas and Mexican fare.

CocoBar recently opened at 316 N. Wabash Ave., striking a balance between fast casual and a sit-down restaurant in an area where many diners will stop by on their way to a museum or a boat tour reservation.

The new restaurant comes from sisters Leticia and Erika Espinosa and friend Gabriel Neely-Streit, who opened artisan gift shop Colores Mexicanos on Michigan Avenue in 2021. Following the store's immense success, the trio decided to try a new venture, opening a restaurant Downtown.

“There was just always a desire to do more, especially after the store was so well-received. ... I think in the Latino community, the feeling of having a place that was your place, it was it was amazing to us to provide that. We felt like there was room for more of that,” Neely-Streit said.

Owners Gabriel Neely-Streit and Erika Espinosa pose for a portrait at Coco Bar, which serves margaritas, various Mexican dishes and more near the Chicago Riverwalk on May 13, 2024. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

The restaurant sits in what was supposed to be an elevator connecting the Riverwalk to Upper Wacker Drive. The project was never completed and for a short time was used as a bike rental facility and a pub.

Now, its bright pink facade invites guests into a colorful courtyard with papel picado and lights hanging from the trees.

Painted calaveras and two large hummingbird alebrijes — brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures — from an artist in Mexico hang in the entrance, enticing passersby to stop and take pictures of the colorful display.

A paper mache sculpture of a hummingbird adorns Coco Bar. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

The kitchen is led by Leticia Rodarte, a local artist and chef. Erika Espinosa met Rodarte while selling artisanal Mexican art at Sunday markets in Pilsen. Rodarte would bring empanadas, coffee and agua frescas to sell. She also sells her goods at coffee shops in Pilsen, Erika Espinosa said.

So when Rodarte applied for a position at Colores Mexicanos, Erika Espinosa said she wanted to showcase her talent at CocoBar.

“She applied for the store and I said, ‘But you are a chef, and we need a chef at CocoBar.' ... She's very, very talented,” Erika Espinosa said.

Head chef Leticia Rodarte prepares a Mexican hummus dish at Coco Bar. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety
An order of carnitas tacos is served at Coco Bar. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

The menu features “walkable” treats like Mexican street corn, empanadas and a gourmet walking taco with carne asada, mango pico de gallo, beans and white queso. It also has main dishes such as shrimp ceviche tostadas, tacos and chilaquiles.

All of the salsas, agua frescas, guacamole and horchata are made by hand. Rodarte's special menu creations include the primavera salad and Mexican hummus.

“It couldn't just be anyone in the kitchen. It has to be Letty because not only does she know the recipes, but she's lived these recipes,” Neely-Streit said.

Cocktails include a classic margarita, strawberry coconut mojito, a blood orange mule and more. Starting at $15, customers can build their own margarita with CocoBar's selection of agua frescas, tequila, mezcal and rim flavor.

CocoBar's tequila and mezcal selection also prominently features Mexican-owned brands.

The restaurant's most popular tequila is La Gritona, from one of the only Latina-owned and -operated distilleries in Jalisco, Mexico. The top mezcal, Yola, is also a Latina-run distillery out of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Bartender Maya Salinas pours a passionfruit margarita at Coco Bar. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety
An order of esquites and the “La Bomba” churro sundae is served at Coco Bar. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

The choice to feature small Mexican producers was intentional, following the business model of Colores Mexicanos, which houses numerous small artisans from all over Mexico.

“I think that it's important because these are traditions. They're not just drinks. And so if you don't support the root of the tradition, which is the people, then that tradition could die,” Neely-Streit said.

CocoBar opened for a shortened season to “test the waters” last year, and now the owners are ready for a full season. The restaurant has seen a lot of foot traffic from the after-work crowd during the weekdays and tourists on the weekends, the owners said.

“We want people walking around to feel like they are vacation when they leave the work and they can stop here and have an agua fresca or something. Just relax. Feel the vibes of vacation,” Erika Espinosa said.

CocoBar will be open through the end of October. The restaurant is open 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily but does close during inclement weather.

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