El Cortez - the coolest bar in Edmonton? Umm, yes!

El Cortez Tequila Bar & Kitchen brings a lil' Mexico, a lil' Cali, and a lil' Bukowski to Edmonton!

BY EMIL TIEDEMANN

THERE'S a bright red neon sign on one of the rustic brick walls of Old Strathcona's El Cortez Tequila Bar & Kitchen that reads, "Find what you love and let it kill you." It's a quote from the late German-born, L.A.-based poet Charles Bukowski, who Time magazine once called "the laureate of American lowlife."
 
El Cortez Tequila Bar & Kitchen is located in Old Strathcona, just off Whyte & Gateway Blvd.


His words of drudgery and toil have influenced countless writers and artists since, including El Cortez co-owner Melanie Swerdan, who may not take those words literally, but certainly retains the sort of passion Bukowski was alluding to. That passion is evident on every wall, in every corner, and within every aspect of El Cortez, perhaps the most unique bar in all of Edmonton, and certainly the city's only one that specializes in tequila. 

"I remember this space, I remember partying here when it was Wooly Bully's," Swerdan answered when I asked her why she and co-owners Michael Maxxis, Eli Diamond and Bill Graham chose their two-storey location, nestled in between the old Strat Hotel and the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market. "I just loved it!"
 
The bar's 'official ride' is this badass blue Chevy El Camino!


Century-old farmhouse doors welcome you into El Cortez and before you know it you're invested in the brushed walls, the forged metals, the resurrected woodwork, the purposed graffiti, and that daunting backdrop of more than 140 varieties of tequila and mezcals, and all made from 100% agave!

We sat at a corner booth, inches from the back patio that - for the moment - moonlights as a parking space for the bar's "official ride," a blue Chevy El Camino. Despite my fierce aversion to anything agave, the very heart of El Cortez, I was game when Swerdan brought over for each of us a shot of naturally-infused coconut tequila.

It's been no less than a decade since the last time I touched tequila. The smell, the taste, the aftertaste...I hate it all, but this shot was not like anything I had had before. The smell, the taste, the aftertaste...I wanted more!
 
'Find what you love and let it kill you,' a quote by poet Charles Bukowski.


"I think one of the other things that distinguishes us from other establishments," added El Cortez's marketing director Cressida Raffin, "is that Mel and Mike are true artists themselves, and that brings a really cool vibe and is inviting for the kind of people who come here." 

Besides the personal touches that owners Melanie - a seasoned photographer - and Mike - a well-known videographer - have implemented in every facet of El Cortez, right down to the bathroom decor, they have invited other local and non-local artists to christen this place using their respective crafts.
 
Down to the basement of El Cortez.


That's just one of the reasons this place is special. They are one of only nine bars in the world that are authenticated from the Tequila Regulatory Council in Guadalajara.

"They sent someone down and did training with our staff," Swerdan said about their elite distinction. "We had to pass exams in order to get authenticated.
 
The cozy and intimate basement of El Cortez, getting ready for a beach party!


"I don't want to scare people off though," she continued. "We do carry all the other spirits; rum, rye, vodka, beer and wine lists as well." They are also working on a menu of craft cocktails, including one that will be served out of a pineapple.

You won't find pineapples on the menu though. Instead, award-winning Chef Lindsay Porter has prepared modern Latin, fusion and traditional dishes that compliment the list of nightcaps, such as Swordfish Ceviche, Valentina's Fried Cauliflower, Chorizo Corn Pops, or Cinnamon Braised Pork Tacos!
 
El Cortez offers about 140 varieties of tequila, as well as beer, wine & other spirits.


Afterwards you can possibly take in one of the "sporadic" shows El Cortez hosts in their intimate basement, a space brimming with concepts you might imagine found in the landscapes Bukowski may have scribbled about in his poems and private diaries. The candlelit stairway down to the basement is in itself an inspired work of art, permitting one's mind to migrate to a far off locale in the deserts of California or Mexico. 

"We're not totally a music venue," Swerdan admitted. "We don't want to be categorized as a music venue, but here and there we love to throw fun little events." Since opening last August, El Cortez has had DJs and musicians perform casual - and somewhat secretive - shows downstairs, including Raine Maida & Chantal Kreviazuk, Matt Mays, Lindi Ortega, Tiga, Jimmy Gnecco, SIIINES, and Shawn Hook.

So, the next time you're strolling through Old Strathcona, seeking a cozy setting, good food & drink, and an ambiance that stands alone in a town full of enthusiastic entrepreneurs, look no further than El Cortez. Because even if tequila has been the catalyst for past experiences gone awry, you'll inevitably give it a second shot. 

Bottoms up!
 
Co-owner Melanie Swerdan chillin' in the ladies room.


The Deets/
A/ 8230 Gateway Boulevard
P/ 780.760.0200
H/ Tues-Sat 4PM-2AM, Sun 4-10PM
T/ @ElCortezYEG
 

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