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: Rostizado by Tres Carnales

"Water for oxen, wine for kings."

“Water for oxen, wine for kings.”

The backs of the coasters are printed with the Spanish proverb, “El agua es para los bueyes y el vino, para los reyes.” Roughly translated to English, it means, “Water for oxen, wine for kings.” While my friends and I did not drink any wine on our evening out, we did feast like royalty at Rostizado by Tres Carnales.

Originally, we had a group of eight that planned to get together, so I had attempted to book a table in advance. However, I was told that they had taken the maximum number of reservations for the evening (they only accept them for groups of 8 or more, 48 hours in advance). Being that all my friends were going to be off work by 5pm that Wednesday, we decided to chance it and do a walk-in. One friend arrived early and put the group down on the waiting list as a table for 6 (a couple of people could no longer make it). We were told that it would likely be ready by 5:15, so we sat on the benches outside the restaurant as there isn’t much room to linger inside. Just shortly after the indicated time, my friend received a text message letting us know that we could come in if our whole party was there. Thankfully, our last two members were within sight as they ambled down the block.

When we walked into the restaurant, I noticed that the Mexican style living room was to my left with the open kitchen directly ahead, seating behind and to the right with a private room (or two) at the far end. Retaining the rustic sensibilities of its predecessor, Roast Coffeehouse & Wine Bar, it’s a decent sized, 70-seat space that allows them to rearrange tables as needed. Mostly though, it has a homey feeling to it. You’re meant to sit back and relax. We were placed at a table against the wall that gave half of us a full view of the chef working away. Warmth was emanating from the rotisserie that was slow cooking chicken and pork, requiring that I acclimate during our meal (I eventually did).

Our server, Monika, was great; she brought us still filtered water (no charge) as soon as we sat down, provided us with drink recommendations (FYI…the pitchers of sangria that can be ordered at Tres Carnales, Rostizado’s sister restaurant, are not on offer here) and she indicated whether or not we had ordered enough food for the group. The menu isn’t large by any means, but everything other than the cemitas (sandwiches) are meant to be shared family style. We basically decided to go big or go home, so we ended up ordering the smoked salmon sopes, the albondigas, and queso fundido to start. The salteados verde and the jicama salad accompanied our two platters for two.

The smoked salmon sopes was the first appetizer to come. A plate of three hand-made corn flour sopes – they look like thick tortilla shells, but they’re fried until the outside is cooked and they are still soft on the inside – topped with an avocado cream salsa, tequila cured smoked salmon, mesquite, radishes and white onion, it was easy to split between the six of us. Personally, I wish there had been just a bit more salmon on it to cover every bite. Yet, this was my favourite of the three entradas we ate. The mix of textures from the sope, fish, salsa and raw vegetables, plus the range of flavours in the few mouthfuls that I had was enough to make me want more.

Albondigas are Mexican meatballs made of house ground veal, pork, beef and rice served with tomato and warm chile de árbol salsa, which gives the dish a heat that slowly builds and lingers. I’m a fan of spice and I could handle it, but a couple of my companions thought it was a bit too much for them. Regardless, I think you get four large meatballs that are juicy and really hold the essence of the salsa well. The last starter was the queso fundido, a skillet of melted smoked gouda and monterrey jack cheeses mixed with wild mushrooms, poblano chile strips and sautéed onions served with a side of bread and tortilla chips. This was really tasty. The cheese stayed hot and stringy because of the iron skillet. Unfortunately, it was also smaller than I would have liked, but definitely worth a try.

We opted for two salads, so we’d get some sort of green during our meal. The salteados verde is listed as sautéed seasonal greens cooked with garlic, apple cider vinegar, poblano strips and pumpkin seeds. Seasonal greens on this evening turned out to be kale, which was excellent. The kale really soaked up the vinegar, taking on a tanginess that was offset by the nuttiness of the seeds. Jicama salad, for me, was a nice alternative to the rest of the dishes, which were largely savoury. The salad was a mix of jicama (reminds me of apple), pickled red onion, orange segments, cucumber, mint and lime juice, which I considered to be a refreshing palate cleanser before beginning on our main platters.

The combination platter for two! We ordered two of these.

The combination platter for two! We ordered two of these.

Two huge wooden boards emblazoned with the Rostizado logo had to be fit onto our table. Each was covered with a combination of local Four Whistle Farm chicken (half) and pork roasted in-house (Chris, one of the owners, came by to say hello, and he said they’re experimenting with other meats on the rotisserie, including duck, which they know is my favourite!), garnished with peppers and carrots and served with rosti-papas (potatos) and tortillas. Let me just say, wow! While we all preferred the pork over the chicken, it’s not to say that the chicken wasn’t any good. The bird was perfect; it was slow roasted on the rotisserie so that the meat practically dissolved in your mouth. The difference is that the pork was incredibly juicy and the rub used to marinate the meat was so flavourful that it didn’t require anything else. A bit of pork inside a tortilla shell was all that I needed. The rosti-papas were delicious as well, and they were nice to have as a starch when we ran out of the tortilla wraps that came with the platters. As we were warned by Monika, we did have plenty of meat left over. She packed the rest up in two boxes for us. I happily took one home and it became my lunch the next day.

That meat was saved for leftovers on purpose, of course. Why you ask? Well, because we had to save a bit of room for dessert. They only offer two desserts on the menu: flan de queso and churros con dulce de leche. We made sure to sample both, so we ordered two of each to share. I had seen posts of the churros on Rostizado’s Twitter feed (@Rostizado_yeg) and seen them make them on the morning news, so I definitely wanted to eat some. While they were delectable, especially made fresh and drizzled with dulce de leche sauce, it was the flan that won me over in the end. It looked like traditional flan, but it had cream cheese folded into it, so it was a lot more dense than I expected and incredibly smooth, and it was drenched with a thin caramel sauce and tossed with almond slices. It was spectacular.

We were there for about two and a half hours and felt welcome the entire time. The service and the food was stellar. Between Tres Carnales (@TresCarnales) and Rostizado, I’d say that Chris Sills, Dani Braun and Edgar Gutierrez are doing things right when it comes to the Edmonton restaurant scene. They focus on and perfect core dishes to ensure that no one walks away hungry, but, most of all, they give their full attention to everything – the atmosphere, the service and the patrons – so you feel as if you’re experiencing something special and memorable every time you dine with them.

The Tres Carnales - Chris and Dani watching over Edgar who's busy in the kitchen.

The Tres Carnales – Chris and Dani watching over Edgar who’s busy in the kitchen.

Open for exactly four weeks as of today, the restaurant has been getting raves and seems to be quite busy already. However, I know that there are still some who haven’t learned of its existence yet. Although, that won’t last for long! I fully expect that it will become a quick favourite for foodies and casual diners all across the city, and, no doubt, it will make The Tomato‘s list of best eats and drinks in Edmonton come 2015.

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