"That's a curious place to get tacos!" my 10-year-old son exclaimed when I told him we were going to a diner for Mexican food. I said that to pique his interest, though it wasn't exactly accurate — the original 1950s luncheonette diner where we were headed is now called El Cortijo Taqueria y Cantina.
El Cortijo means "farmhouse" in Spanish; the eatery is a sister restaurant to The Farmhouse Tap & Grill located down the street. I was hoping El Cortijo would stay true to the Farmhouse's farm-to-table philosophy without putting too much of a strain on my pocketbook.
When my boyfriend, son and I arrived early on a Saturday evening, clusters of patrons were hobnobbing outside; El Cortijo is a small restaurant, and it doesn't take reservations. We waited about 30 minutes for a booth.
From our seats in the back of the long, narrow diner, we had a clear view of the restaurant. The crowd that night was a lively mix of college students, families and date-night couples. No need for piñatas or sombreros in this Mexican joint; as twilight fell, the hanging jujube-hued lampshades and soft white lights strung across the chrome counter gave the place a festive warmth.
We ordered chips with the rojo and verde salsas and a queso fundido dip, which arrived almost immediately. The rojo ($3), made from canned tomatoes, had a disappointing metallic flavor, but the verde (also $3) was tangy and fresh tasting. The queso ($4), although nicely seasoned with chopped house-pickled jalapeños, tasted more like béchamel than cheese; it remained mostly untouched. The tortilla chips were fresh, hot and salty — perfect with a glass of cane-sugar cola.
The menu features a wide selection of entrées, but I had come for the tacos. I ordered the three-taco plate ($16.50, includes two sides) to share with my son. We chose the pescado (fish), carnitas (pork, from Vermont Heritage Grazers in Bridport) and the vegetarian taco special, which included broccoli, corn and cheddar. There's no children's menu, but fillings such as cilantro and onion can be omitted upon request. My boyfriend ordered the carne asada ($18), which is seared steak from LaPlatte River Farm in Shelburne served with chimichurri — a mixture of herbs, olive oil and chili pepper.
We hadn't waited long when my three soft corn tortillas arrived. The pollock with tequila-lime crème and red cabbage slaw was a delicious blend of creaminess, crunch and tang. My son took three big bites and gave a thumbs up.
But he made an unpleasant face after biting into the pork taco. I tried it myself and found the meat to be dry and stringy. The sweet charred-pineapple salsa did nothing to improve the blandness of the braised pork. On the other hand, my son said the vegetarian special taco was "too delicious to be vegetarian."
My boyfriend's carne asada was flavorful, juicy and generously covered in chimichurri. But the portion was small for $18. To stretch out the meal, we filled extra tortillas with the remaining salsa and our sides: Spanish rice, greens and, my favorite, Vermont Bean Crafters organic black beans cooked with seasonings and onions.
Dessert was a churro ($1.50) with chocolate sauce on the side. Crusted with sugar and cinnamon, this stick of deep-fried dough had a crisp veneer and a divine, lemony, cakey middle. Skip the chocolate sauce; the churro doesn't need it.
I was hoping for Mexican food on the cheap, but that's not what we found at El Cortijo. However the locavore menu and fun Tijuana vibe made it worth the extra pesos.