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At El Cortez, Stephen Tanner Proves Himself the Don Quixote of Bushwick

Eater NY critic Robert Sietsema takes a first glimpse at a conflicted Brooklyn cocktail lounge sure to become a classic.

It’s easy to have a soft spot in your heart for crazy restaurants. Take a look at El Cortez, the new cocktail lounge/eatery from Stephen Tanner. He was one half of the original Pies ‘N Thighs team; brought chicken to Egg; and founded Williamsburg’s Commodore, another wacky and lovable place. El Cortez is situated in what had been a rather obscure street in Bushwick, one filled with wall murals and artists’ lofts — though as you trek from the subway, you’ll notice an entire block surrounded by a metal fence where a high-rise condo is about to appear.

The exterior at El Cortez.

How do you know El Cortez is nutty? Perpetually parked out front is a Ford Maverick, painted two jazzy shades of aquamarine. Hardly a muscle car. Set into the two-story white façade is a chalet, with an orange setting sun in bas relief overhead and a towering totem pole on the side. The last flagrantly doesn’t fit any of the restaurant’s multiple themes, since totem poles are the exclusive province of Indian tribes dwelling in the Pacific Northwest, especially the Tlingit and the Kwakwaka’wakw. (But try saying that after your second cocktail.) Inside find what looks like a Vegas lounge from the 60s, including circular Naugahyde booths, wood paneling, and flagstone walls, with backlit booze bottles behind the bar.

By contrast, the menu might be described as Mexican-American. During the current Tex-Mex craze, several places have tried to reproduce it, with limited success. Their failures can generally be traced to taking the food too seriously, almost in an academic fashion. Thus Javelina studies chili con queso and decides that the only way to accurately render it is by offering multiple variations. By contrast, at El Cortez the food has a delightful thrown-together quality and a certain devil-may-care trashiness, which makes it taste a lot more like what you might find at a roadhouse in Wichita Falls, Phoenix, or La Jolla, California.

Above: The restaurant's interior and shrimp cocktail. Below: Tacos.

Take the shrimp cocktail ($9). Presented in a tulip glass, generous cubes of avocado and pink crustaceans flounder in a thick red sauce, as if rising for air. Shooting above the rim are what must be Keebler Club Crackers, adding just the right shade of beach-tan brown. Yet the shrimp are much bigger than you'd expect, the sauce not quite as sweet, and the entire effect is stunning. In point of fact, I've had ceviches just like this one in border towns such as Nogales and Nuevo Laredo. Speaking of Nogales, just across the border in Tucson, Arizona is where the chimichanga was born, basically just a deep-fried burrito smothered in salsas and crema. El Cortez does a bang-up job of this, too.

Another culinary triumph of the trailer park sort is the discursive "all-American taco night" ($9) — three hard-shell beauties dribbling seasoned ground beef, canned black olives, iceberg lettuce, and sour cream, name-checking something called El Paso. You guessed it! Supermarket salsa. Yes, this food will give farmers’ market shoppers nightmares, but these tacos are really, really good. Ditto the chicken enchiladas ($11), "hot plate style," a name that summons up an inner city Tex-Mex diner. What arrives are like something you’d find in San Antonio lovingly recreated with top-quality ingredients.

Sensing he has a sure thing, but also wanting to the seal the deal with proven successes, Tanner reaches into the Commodore grab bag to fill out his bill of fare. Thus we have nachos akin to those at his Williamsburg bar, a lush assemblage that looks like someone put an M-80 in the middle of a garden patch that happened to also have white and blue corn chips growing in it. There’s a playful version of his signature fried chicken sandwich, too, in the form of four sliders ($11) impaled on a stick, shish kebab style, each with a single pickle chip. Is it junk art or is it junk food? Only critics of the future will be able to decide.

Fried chicken sliders and two cocktails, the flor de muertos and a mojito.

The cocktails are largely too sweet and too strong and too poured into freakish glasses, but the boisterous crowd likes it that way. The drinks are printed on the colorful placemats, and run to period standards such as zombies, Singapore slings, and a rum punch featuring three kinds of rum, pineapple and orange juices, and grenadine. My favorite of several sampled was the deliciously named flor de muertos, compounded of tequila, mezcal, vermouth, lime, and falernum, a florid syrup that sounds like something Julius Caesar would crave.

Cocktails aside, El Cortez is a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the seemingly offhand food is some of the tastiest currently being served in Bushwick. And it does the Mexican-American canon justice, too. 17 Ingraham St, Brooklyn, (347) 599-2976

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