Reason #62 of '101 Reasons Why I Heart Edmonton'

El Cortez & Other Bitchin' Bars

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.” 

His words of drudgery and toil have influenced countless writers and artists since, including El Cortez co-owner Melanie Swerdan, whom 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. 

Just outside the El Cortez Bar just off of Whyte Avenue and along Gateway Boulevard.

“I remember this place, 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 Strat Hotel and the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market. “I just loved it!” 

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 - moonlighted as a parking space for the bar’s “official ride,” a blue 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! 

There's an impressive collection of fine tequilas to choose from.

“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. 

That’s just one of the reasons why this place is special. They are one of only nine bars in the world that are authenticated from the Tequila Regulatory Council in Guadalajara, Mexico. “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.” 

As you’re enjoying one of their many high end tequilas (or perhaps another spirit, beer or wine), you can compliment it with a modern Latin, fusion, or traditional dish from the menu of award-winning chef Lindsay Porter

El Cortez's basement has a whole 'nother look and feel to it!

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 in August of 2014, El Cortez has had DJs and musicians perform casual - and somewhat secretive - shows downstairs, including Raine Maida, Chantal Kreviazuk, Matt Mays, Lindi Ortega, Tiga, 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. #yegbars

Other Bitchin' Bars:

Arcadia Bar (10988 - 124 Street)
The Billiard Club (10505 Whyte Avenue)
The Black Dog Freehouse (10425 Whyte Avenue)
BLVD Bar x Kitchen (10765 Jasper Avenue)
The Common (9910 - 109 Street)
Cook County Saloon (8010 Gateway Boulevard)
Craft Beer Market (10013 - 101A Avenue)
Have Mercy (8232 Gateway Boulevard)
The Mahogany Room Bar (Fort Edmonton Park)
Mercer Tavern (10363 - 104 Street)
MKT Fresh Food & Beer Market (8101 Gateway Boulevard)
The Needle Vinyl Tavern (10524 Jasper Avenue)
O’Byrne’s Irish Pub (10616 Whyte Avenue)
On the Rocks (11740 Jasper Avenue)
The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar (10334 - 108 Street)
The Red Piano (8882 - 170 Street) (West Edmonton Mall)
The Sherlock Holmes Pub (10012 - 101A Avenue)
The Underground Tap & Grill (10004 Jasper Avenue)
Woodwork (10132 - 100 Street)
Yellowhead Brewery (10229 - 105 Street) 

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