After nearly 15 boisterous years of slinging tacos and tequila in River North, Mercadito is expanding its horizons with the debut of a new subterranean cocktail lounge and restaurant. The downtown stalwart has unveiled Copal, a moody and low-lit lair where chefs are highlighting a Japanese culinary influence on the cuisines of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Copal differs from its older sibling upstairs as diners will need tickets for entry into a roomy and banquette-lined lounge where diners will find a menu of small, lavish dishes like fire-roasted octopus, Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, and Hudson Valley foie gras.
Bar director Javier Arroyo, formerly of Bar Sotano and Tabu, seems influenced by Sotano in using food items as inspiraiton for his drinks. Case in point: he’s mixed up a Tres Leches Fizz (tequila, charanda, banana liqueur, tres leches mix). Another Mexican-influence option is the Zama (gin, mezcal, hibiscus tea, jackfruit, lychee). Imbibers may also notice an oblique nod to Japan in the Ancient Fruit (mezcal, nigori sake, papaya, black pepper).
Named for an aromatic tree resin that Indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America burn as ceremonial incense, Copal’s entry in Chicago is timely. In recent years, a wave of Mexican chefs in cities like Oaxaca and Mexico City have been experimenting with combinations of local culinary traditions and Japanese flavors. Many draw inspiration from the first wave of Japanese immigrants whose arrival in Mexico dates back to the 1930s. Some founded restaurants and proceeded to make a significant impact on local palates, though there are only around 31,000 Japanese people or people of Japanese descent in the country as of 2018, according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Look around the lounge and peruse its menu in the photographs below.
Copal, 108 W. Kinzie Street, Open 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.