Sunday, March 23, 2014

El Cortez, Where Everyone Knows Your Name

El Cortez Bar and Grill
28971 Golden Lantern 
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

Every neighborhood has their favorite Mexican restaurant. In Placentia there is the very good El Farolito, Anaheim has the Gwen Stefani endorsed Mexi-Casa, and San Juan Capistrano has El Campeon, which usually has a line out the door. I have lived in south OC for awhile now, and one place that I have kept hearing that I need to try is El Cortez Bar and Grill.

El Cortez is located at the intersection of Golden Lantern and Moulton, in the same shopping center as Wendy's and Patsy's Irish Pub. We were going to be meeting our good friends, and strong El Cortez proponents, Heather and Trevor for a brunch date on a recent Sunday. They always like sitting at the bar, (no surprise there), so that's where we found ourselves right about noon. I did not get a good look at the dining room side of this place, but the bar area was very comfortable, with maybe room at the bar for ten or so customers, a good number of booths, and a few TVs placed behind the bar of this segregated area of El Cortez.

Even at this early hour, the bar filled up with regulars. The bartender on duty knew most of the patrons by name, which was a nice, homey feeling. El Cortez's first Yelp review is from 2007, but I'm positive that they have been around a lot longer than that. The menu here is pretty standard for a Mexican restaurant in Southern California. A good selection of breakfast items, combination plates, and fajitas dominate the menu. I was really looking forward to what this local Mexican food hot spot would send our way from the kitchen.

The Chips and Salsa were pretty strong here at El Cortez. The chips were good. You could tell that they were freshly made, with just a touch of grease still lingering. The salsa was a little on the watery side, but the abundance of onions made up for that in my opinion. Not overly spicy, it provided a decent kick, but nothing that even Katie could not handle.

Katie started us off by ordering a plate of Nachos Carabela with Shredded Beef ($12.10) for the four of us. Piled on top of a single layer of tortilla chips was refried beans, melted cheese, a scoop of guacamole, two dollops of sour cream, jalapenos, and of course the shredded beef. I liked these nachos, there was plenty of meat spread on top of them, in nice, easy to manage pieces. With the exception of the sour cream and guacamole, the toppings were distributed evenly here. I thought the serving size for this did not merit a $12 price tag, but in the end, these were a pretty solid plate of nachos.

Katie was still feeling the effects from the dinner the night before, so she just ordered a Quesadilla ($6.95) as her entree. This flour tortilla was filled with cheese, and served with a pretty small side of sour cream and guacamole. I immediately noticed the lack of grease that usually comes with cheese quesdadillas. Katie felt this was pretty standard quesadilla. Nothing that really knocked her socks off, but what can you do to a cheese quesadilla to make it memorable? Probably not much.

Heather was really conflicted on what to get here, but she ended up having the #1 Beef Taco and Cheese Enchilada Combination Plate ($12.95). According to Trevor, this was an unusual order for Heather, but she really enjoyed this meal, and it helped clear up some of the remnants from the frivolity of the night before.

Much like ordering lasagna in an Italian restaurant, my "go to" order when I first eat at a Mexican restaurant is usually always carnitas, so my meal here would be the Carnitas Jalisco ($15.95). I was pretty happy when this plate of deep fried pork was placed in front of me. There was plenty of meat on the plate, mixed with a liberal amount of chopped onions and cilantro. My happiness was short lived though. A good majority of the pork was overcooked, which made this swine a little dry. Only made better by eating this alongside the pretty average refried beans to add moisture. The rice was the best thing on the plate, and I'm not usually even a rice kind of person.

Trevor has a pretty set order when eating at El Cortez after a long night of partying, the Huevos a la Cortez Mario ($8.95) is his hangover cure. Two eggs on a soft tortilla, topped with beans, chorizo and a special sauce. He likes his eggs almost burnt, which they got right on their second trip out of the kitchen. After that little snafu, he polished off his plate rather quickly.

Since we were sitting at the bar, it only seemed right to have a drink or two while wee were here. I started with this Bloody Mary ($8.00). This was a pretty pedestrian tasting Bloody Mary, which I got spicy. The spice was evident, but could not rescue this from being anything but mediocre. Much better were the infused tequilas that they have at the end of the bar. $5.50 per shot, these had a nice contrast of flavors which I can not remember right now, (I have to take better notes, or maybe drink a little less), but I believe there was jalapeno and fruit involved in the shot that I had. A must try for anyone that likes tequila.

So after going through this review, I can guess you can say that we were not "over the moon" about El Cortez, like the rest of our neighbors seem to be. We could have just caught them on an off day, but nothing we had, save for the tequila shots at the end of the meal, were anything but average. We would definitely go back, as their happy hour prices are more along the lines of what you should actually be paying for the food at El Cortez. They also have a taco night, which is on Wednesday, which we here is a pretty good bargain as well. Reading through their Yelp reviews, service seems to be an issue here, but we did not experience that at all. Our bartender/waitress, Michelle, seemed to have everything under control with the pretty steady customer flow on this afternoon. As with many favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurants, the people who grew up with El Cortez, or live near it, might be clouded by their love of this restaurant. For us that have no such affinity for this restaurant, it was pretty much average.

Out of five bougainvilleas, (which just happens to be the city flower of Laguna Niguel), five being best to zero being worst, El Cortez Bar and Grill gets 2.5 bougainvilleas.

El Cortez Bar and Grill does not have a website, but you can find out more information about them here:

El Cortez Mexican on Urbanspoon

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