Echo Park is becoming quite a little foodie scavenger hunt. It’s home to many side street taco trucks and comforting diner-like destinations. There are high and low end cuisines represented, places to make your meat eating and non-meat eating friends happy, and even a place or two to buy specialty alcohol or locally grown groceries. They’re all popping up faster than we can keep up with, too. The latest is Cortez, a cute little newcomer from the Cookbook folks that is within eyeshot of the entrance to Elysian Park Avenue.
Nearly out of nowhere, an Eastside buzz grew around this new restaurant. We had heard people chatting about the space and fielded a few invites to eat here. You have likely driven past it a few times without even noticing. We decided to give Cortez a go on a super crisp Autumn night last week, which had us bundled up and heading into this golden space after searching for nearly thirty minutes for parking. (Note: Parking over here is absolutely dreadful.) We stood around the front of the small restaurant with some friends and one or two other waiting parties. The space has two communal dining tables with a bar for dining around the kitchen. The host stand is a discrete wooden tongue hanging out of the front wall and those waiting have a standing bar at the front window where you can set down glasses of wine you order from the super sweet and attentive host. This wait could be annoying but you should use this time to have a drink and think about the menu–then set in to watch over the two dining tables. The yellow wheels of light above you give just enough glow for you to see how everything is.
We sat down at the end of the back communal table, next to a family of two middle-aged adults and two pre-teens. We examined the menu again and got a few suggestions from the family. It was a welcoming feeling. The family’s ten year old son even noted that the percorino in the farro salad was “a bit overpowering,” which has to be the most absurdist thing I have ever heard a child say. This is important though because everything on the menu is so simple and a rogue pecorino could mean the fall of a dish: that farro salad is only farro charred spigarello, za’atar, and pecorino. The dishes are delicately stacked. The menu is broken into three tiers, into salads and main meaty items and side vegetables. The layout of the menu is quite nice and all of the plates carry on the triangular geometrics that you find in their branding. It’s a subtle touch in addition to the weighty Alessi forks and knives. Cortez is very aware of its look.
With instruction from our very sweet server, we were told to get two or three plates for each person. Being a partly vegan crowd, this was a little tough because shared plates are always tough and they are particularly tough when dietary restrictions are thrown into the mixture. We faired well, though: for communal grabbing, the green beans and the beet salad were ordered with braised greens and cauliflower for non-meat tasting and the sardines, bavette steak, and merguez sausage for the meat eaters. (Note: The merguez came highly recommended by the ten year old.) Dishes arrived at nearly the same time and the plating is nice but not as full as you would expect. They are simple dishes–the green beans piled with some red picked peppers laying atop of them, the beets were sliced and arranged with a few celery leaves waving out–that are not preoccupied with impressing you outside of taste. The taste in these starting items were good, the beans being particularly pickle flavored and the beets being perfectly earthy with the celery leaves being a curious, divisive addition.
More food arrives and the simplicity keeps coming. These aren’t basic dishes: they are simple. They are barebones and just the facts. Anything extra is not included because there is likely not enough local stock for embellishment. The sardines were a good example of this and an exercise in awkward dining: they were two whole sardines grilled in oil and lemon and were delightful save for their nature being tiny and boney. The bavette steak was literally from farm to table, heated up by a breath and garnished with salsa verde and potato crisps. The rareness of the steak will be welcome to some and not to others–it will be chewy no matter your temperature preference. The parsley notes in the verde were very good, though. The merguez was the triumph of the dinner but felt like it had been delivered from Downtown’s Bäco Mercat. It was a spicy, lamby flatbread sandwich with the arugula, yogurt sauce, and pickles helping to subdue the heat.
After all of this and guessing our bill was somewhere around the $120 mark, we realized we were certainly still hungry. The poor non-meat eaters had lemony greens (which were good) but had to send back their overly charred purple cauliflower once for being too burned. (This was also after the kind caveat, “They aren’t burned: they are purple cauliflower.” There were burned, sadly.) The vegan diners were ready for their main course as we readied to exit. Our check came out after we glanced at the dessert menu (the Basque Cake sounded interesting, dates with polenta cookies and cow’s milk with “vegetable ash” were a little too eccentric for us) along with a small bowl of homemade merengues with Mast Brother’s chocolate sprinkled on top of it. These little super sweet bites were likely the best part of the meal and certainly some of the best merengues we’ve ever had. They’re also a lot more than just some Brooklyn beardo choco sprinklings, too.
Cortez looks great, sounds great, but gets a bit caught up in its simplicity. The ideology of local eating and communal dining seems to trip up the machine and sadly left for a lot more to be desired. The service is wonderful and the place is the cutest restaurant between the 5 and the 101. We wanted so badly for it to be the alternative, Eastsider Cooks County. It sounds exactly like that on paper–Which is beautiful paper!–but the memo is only partially written. Cortez will rise but that will likely be after some more time in the kitchen.