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A bartender pours brown liquor into a smoking rocks glass. Aliya Ikhumen/Eater Chicago

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Explore Wicker Park’s Moody New Mexican Japanese Cocktail Lounge

Valedor spins a boozy riff on a tea ceremony and al pastor-stuffed gyoza

Just as Mexico City’s famed jacarandas spring forth each year in pretty purple hues, a distinctive culinary style rooted in the history of Japanese immigration to Mexico is beginning to blossom in Chicago. Despite decades of influence dating back to the 1930s, Japanese Mexican communities and cuisine have until recently flown under the radar in the Windy City. That’s about to change as Valedor, a new cocktail lounge from the owners of Wicker Park’s Robey Hotel is on the verge of opening.

Managing partner Santiago Leon and his team aim to shed light on the intertwined cultures and present Chicagoans with a new way of looking at immigrant influences, spicing up life for Wicker Park and Bucktown where new dining choices have been drab in recent years.

A cast iron teapot sits beside four small plates of honey and two small glass sake cups.
Tea Ceremony.
A cocktail in a coup glass topped with white foam.
Horchata 2 Ways.

Rice — a staple ingredient all over the world — is one of the strongest culinary ties that binds Japanese and Mexican cuisine, and serves as a backbone that runs throughout Valedor’s cocktail and food menus. That’s the inspiration behind drinks such as Horchata 2 Ways (unfiltered sake, Cimarrón tequila, jasmine rice horchata, falernum, cinnamon powder), capped with a creamy crown of horchata pudding cream, and a variety of colorful rice wine-based “sakeritas” (cucumber, passionfruit, and strawberry) that can be ordered separately or as a flight. The Tea Ceremony offers a boozy take on an ancient Japanese ritual with some help from Rare Tea Cellar, presented in a tetsubin (cast iron kettle) alongside several types of honey.

Three crispy taco-shaped crisps that hold tuna poke.
Baja tuna poke.

Valedor, which translates from Spanish as “brave,” is first and foremost a cocktail bar, but the Japanese Mexican fusion extends to a food menu that includes a punny “tacoyaki” — a truly unusual marriage of takoyaki and birria tacos — as well as a spicy tuna roll that draws heat from chile de arbol and a beef katsu sando couched on fluffy milkbread that staff makes on-site.

Chicago-based Kehoe Design Group has transformed a former outpost of Fairgrounds Coffee & Tea into a moody, low-lit drinking den dotted with abstract video art on custom screens imported from London. Bold, graphic wallpaper juxtaposes against upholstered leather banquettes and tufted stools, all set aglow by hanging basket lamps.

A display of dishes from Valedor.
Valedor aims for playful food and drink.

Though Valedor is an early adopter in Chicago, it’s not the first spot in town to explore the possibilities of Japanese Mexican flavors. In May, the team behind Mercadito in River North unveiled Copal, a ticketed subterranean lounge where bartenders and chefs highlight a Japanese culinary influence on the cuisines of the Yucatan Peninsula. Both businesses are hot on the trail of Mexican chefs in Oaxaca and Mexico City, who have for several years experimented with combinations of local culinary traditions and Japanese flavors.

Explore Valedor’s creative cocktails and food menu in the photographs below.

Valedor, 1620 N. Milwaukee Avenue, open 5 p.m. to midnight on Sunday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

A bartender uses flame to create smoke on top of a cocktail.
Autumn in August.
A smoky cocktail.
The drink is made with plum liqueur, date syrup, lime, and applewood smoke.
A yellow and red cocktail.
Bright colors contrast nicely with Valedor’s dark interior.
A plate of pan-fried dumplings.
A plate of roasted shishito peppers.
A bowl of round fried birria balls.

“Tacoyaki.”

A plate of deep fried oyster mushrooms.
Chicken y oyster mushroom karaage.
A low-lit bar space.
Kehoe Design Group opted for a dark, moody style.
Sandy Noto/Valedor
A banquette lounge section inside a bar.
Groups can gather in these cozy nooks.
Sandy Noto/Valedor

Valedor, 1620 N. Milwaukee Avenue, opening on Friday, December 1. Opening hours are 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

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