I first heard about El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar from a good friend of mine. She had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of the restaurant and bar before it opened to the public about 15 months ago. It was the space, more than anything, that she said I should see. Even she conceded that the food wasn’t all that great at the time. However, the artwork and the basement (remains a mystery to me) were worth a visit.
As weeks, months and then almost a year passed by, I still hadn’t set foot in El Cortez. One of the big reasons being that Old Strathcona is just not all that convenient for me. But, from what I had gathered, the eatery had reassessed their menu and brought in new chef, Lindsay Porter, to revamp the offerings. My expectations went up.
Before I knew it, August was upon us. The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is the one annual event that is guaranteed to get me to Whyte Avenue, and, as it turns out, it also provided an excellent opportunity to finally try El Cortez.
Knowing that the area would be teeming with people during the festival, I decided to make an advance reservation through OpenTable. While the restaurant wasn’t entirely full when we arrived, I’m still glad that we did. Seats filled up rather quickly while we were dining . Some were there for a meal, others simply grabbed drinks as they waited for the basement to open up for whatever Fringe play was being performed that afternoon (El Cortez served as a new BYOV during the festival).
My first impression of the place was a good one. After all, you eat with your eyes first, and this was a restaurant that created a fun atmosphere that I was more than happy to spend time in. The look of El Cortez is meticulously detailed. There’s art covering each wall. All of them unique, but unifying in design. The lighting is worked into the art or is the art itself, casting shadows of colour everywhere you look. And that bar. The bar is gorgeous, housing bottles of tequila – the establishment is one of only nine in the world certified by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (The Tequila Regulatory Council) – backlit by an enticing blue.
Now, the question was whether or not the food would be up to par. My friend and I carefully perused the menu as we sipped on our beers. Eventually we decided to share orders of the Valentina’s fried cauliflower and the tuna ceviche. Since my friend wasn’t as hungry as me, I also opted to try a trio of the steak taco “bulgogi.”
The Valentina’s fried cauliflower was lightly breaded with the right bite, so there was still some crispness to the vegetable. The slightly tangy sauce coating the cauliflower was good on its own, but the crema dip on the side gave the dish that extra kick.
Sushi is one of my favourite cuisines, so it’s safe to say that I like raw foods. When there’s anything close to that on a menu, I usually like to sample it. The tuna ceviche sounded too good to skip. Chunks of tuna mixed with pineapple, mango, ginger, jalapeno, mint, cucumber and peanuts made this an interesting appetizer. My one qualm while eating it was that I came across a rather large tuna bone, so I was really cautious after that. However, the tuna was fresh and the flavours were really great. The ginger, mint and cucumber made it refreshing and light, and the peanuts helped to balance out the sweetness from the fruit. Jalapeno was added in to give it that necessary Latin heat without overtaking any of the other components. This was served with a tin of fresh tortilla chips and potato chips (I liked the latter more because they were seasoned and that worked well with the ceviche).
Tacos, when done properly, are a force to be reckoned with. Those little shells can hold any sort of meat or filling that you desire. Yet, we’d been without anything close to true Mexican street food for as long as I can remember. That is, until Tres Carnales popped up over four years ago. While I still love Tres, there are differences between the two. The major one being the type of taco that they use. The shells at El Cortez seem to be thicker and softer, and they might hold up slightly better. The dishes at El Cortez are arguably more aesthetically pleasing as well. Food is colourful at both, but there’s a bit more flair at El Cortez, which isn’t surprising considering the overall look of the restaurant. El Cortez is flashy, but Tres is a little more humble and its sister establishment, Rostizado, falls somewhere in between.
That leads me to the steak taco “bulgogi” dish. Damn, those were delicious. You only get three per order, and I wanted more when I was done. The steak was cooked perfectly. Juicy and tender meat with enough sauce in every bite and just a bit of crunch from the coleslaw meant this was a superb choice as my main.
With time left to spare before our next Fringe show, I opted for a dessert, too (I know, I know). I chose a banana custard with tequila marinated fruit and coconut granola. Honestly, I’m not sure I would order this one again. The texture of custard doesn’t really bother me like it does some people, but this one seemed watered down. I did enjoy the coconut granola, which also consisted of pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds. However, the tequila marinated fruit, interesting at first, felt like a misstep by the end.
All-in-all, I’d recommend El Cortez. The appetizers and the mains were all beautifully executed (minus the fish bones). Our server was friendly. However, she didn’t make it to our table as often later into our meal, so it was difficult to flag her down for dessert and the bill. Otherwise, the service was decent. If you can, you should also check out their Taco Tuesday when tacos are only $3 each and you can mix and match your order. Be sure to book a reservation though, or you could be in for a long wait. Plus, if this place wasn’t already cool enough, you should lookout for secret shows that take place every so often in the basement.