Edmonton Restaurant Review: El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

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.

Banana Custard for dessert

Banana Custard for dessert

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.

El Cortez's Twitter Image. I love this logo.

El Cortez’s Twitter Image. I love this logo.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Blue Plate Diner

Beet Cake #1

Beet Cake #1

I’ve been going to Blue Plate Diner (@blueplatediner) for years now. It’s one of my go-to restaurants for those hearty homemade type meals. What really draws me there is the quirkiness of the place, which has a decidedly vintage 70s vibe with the diner tables, mismatched chairs, unique table lamps and colourfully painted walls. In other words, you know that even though they’re striving for an almost nostalgic type of atmosphere, you’re not going to get plain and boring food.

Named to the No. 64 spot on The Tomato‘s list of the top 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton in 2013, the establishment has clearly remained a favourite of city diners over the years. For me, the food as well as the convenience of the place are what keep me coming back. Located on 104 Street just north of Jasper Avenue, it is just blocks away from work, making this a popular choice for meetups with friends during lunch hour or even for large groups. One of my more recent visits was after work near the end of May. My friend and I had a lovely dinner before going to see City and Colour at Rexall Place. Situated so close to the LRT station, it was a no-brainer that particular evening.

The veggie burger with a side of caesar salad and a coconut caipirinha cocktail.

The veggie burger with a side of caesar salad and a coconut caipirinha cocktail.

Known for their veggie burger, I had never tried it before, so this time I took the opportunity to eat what many have enjoyed in the past. It came to the table with a steak knife holding the bun and “meat” in place. The patty truly looked like an actual piece of beef. It had been grilled, but upon biting into it, it had a more malleable texture, a consistency similar to tartar. I have no clue as to what exactly it was made out of, but I am guessing there were pureed beets, quinoa and onions in it, and possibly beans, too. It was served with Dijon mustard as well as tomato and lettuce (cheese is extra). I think the lack of bite and juice that you get from actual beef is something I missed going with the veggie burger. However, it tasted great and that’s what matters most. Ultimately, the burger and the side of caesar salad was really filling. The housemade salad dressing is perfectly creamy and not overly thick and every piece of green was nicely coated. It might be overload for some, but that’s just the way I like it. I often will just order a full size caesar salad with grilled chicken breast added to it as a meal. It’s particularly nice with a squeeze of lemon juice. And, even though I had my heart set on dessert, there was no way I was going to comfortably fit that into my stomach that night.

Mac & Cheese

Mac & Cheese

My other recommendations at Blue Plate Diner include the mac and cheese, which comes in a massive plate-bowl filled with cavatappi pasta in a creamy béchamel sauce. Loaded with cheddar, mozzarella and asiago cheese and topped with diced tomatoes, it’s a classic. I admit that I remember it being better on previous occasions, but it is still one of my top choices on the menu. For dessert, do order their beet cake! Like carrot cake’s relative, it’s a toothsome selection that is topped with orange-cream cheese icing and walnuts, but potentially more moist. I was just there on a recent Saturday afternoon for a book club discussion and a slice for dessert plus a cup of chai latte was perfect to cure the doldrums on that rainy day.

On a side note, they used to have a falafel dish that my friends miss it as it is no longer on the menu. I’m surprised that, for an establishment that tends to stick to the tried and true, that they removed this popular item. I assumed it was a top choice for patrons because I had been told it was really good, but perhaps I’m wrong. Who knows though, maybe one day they’ll bring it back?

Overall, Blue Plate Diner is a one-of-a-kind, family-owned business that seems very community oriented. Showcasing rotating pieces from local artists on the walls, you can see that this is a place that strives to be both welcoming and supportive, which is why it is a great venue for friends to congregate. They will accommodate large reservations as the space and the tables can be rearranged to seat a variety of group sizes. Having done so myself, I know that they do their best to ensure friendly and reliable service. Every so often, service can be a little slow when the establishment is full, but, if you’re not in a rush, the din coming from the happy people that sit among you is rather nice. It reminds you that life is too good to take too seriously, and, really, Blue Plate Diner is all about finding the fun in your food and your surroundings.

For a more in-depth look at the establishment’s involvement in the community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Blue Plate Diner.