The air is swampy. The neon lights outlining the restaurant change colors and invite us in. We are seated by the window and the air conditioning is a tall, cold glass of water. We ask for Bill, who turns out to be a warm, attentive, and helpful host. He recommends several options and we go with them all, because who are we to miss out?
The Beverages at El Cartel
When we are offered drinks, Bill recommends the sangria. Regular or frozen? “Frozen is more fun,” he says charmingly. Frozen it is, and quite refreshing given the hot water, but neither my eating companion nor myself are blown away.
I get the red sangria and he gets the white, and while both are pleasantly sweet, both of us wish it were fruitier. It does, however, whet the appetite and we find ourselves quite ready for the rest of the meal.
The empanadas are the first to arrive, fragrant and steaming hot. One is filled with beef, the other with cheese. The cheese empanada has a deep-fried flour shell, while the beef-filled one has a corn masa shell instead.
It is served with aji verde, the green sauce known for both its spicy kick and creamy mouthfeel. They are both delicious – the cheese empanada is flakier due to the flour shell, which provides excellent textural contrast to the soft, creamy cheese inside.
The cheese is not melty, exactly, but reminds me of both ricotta and cream cheese – extremely soft and luscious without the sharpness of an aged cheese. The beef empanada is a study in contrast; the intensely beefy and savory filling is complemented by the sweet and slightly nutty corn. Both fillings are highly recommended, and the aji verde sauce (sharp, bright, and deliciously garlicky) only enhances their umami characteristics.
The Tonstone Cups
We also order a trio of tostone cups, fried unripe green plantains that are then smashed and molded into little cups that could fit a baseball. Fortunately, they are filled instead with octopus, beef, and chicken.
The octopus is served in a creamy béchamel, which pairs with the seafood perfectly. The octopus itself is cooked well and is not rubbery, and the sauce is buttery and rich. The beef filling is very similar to ropa vieja, where the shreds of beef are braised until tender, alongside onions and carrots.
The chicken filling is perhaps the most lackluster; it is more watery than the béchamel and gives the vague impression that you are eating soup in a tostone cup. The chicken, like the beef, is shredded and tender but lacks any intense chicken flavor. Despite my typical aversion to eating octopuses (they are extremely intelligent creatures), this was the clear stand-out of the trio.
The Shrimp Ceviche
The final appetizer is the shrimp ceviche. A deceptive dish with perfectly cooked shrimp dressed simply in lime juice, cilantro, mango, purple onions, and El Cartel’s house-made pink sauce, this dish tells a tale of summer.
It is luxurious in mouthfeel but elegant in its coolness and simplicity. The brightness of the lime and vegetal notes from cilantro refresh the pink sauce and bring energy to the shrimp. At $18.00, it is perhaps a tad expensive for an appetizer but could be enjoyed as a light entree.
The Mains, and the Surprising Star of the Dish…
From the entrées, Bill suggests the Bandeja El Cartel, which I already had my eye on, as well as the Churrasco steak. The latter is chosen due to popularity and I am highly curious to see if it is overcooked.
We order it medium rare due to miscommunication; later, we would both regret not ordering it as rare as they could have prepared it. It arrives on a sizzling platter, alongside a separate plate of leafy greens (my nemesis) and a dollop of whipped potatoes.
The steak itself is fine but nothing otherworldly; it is relatively juicy but lacks the beefy flavor that accompanies a more well-marbled steak. Fat is flavor, after all, and most of the fat on this steak is focused on the perimeter.
The whipped potatoes are tasty and adequately creamy, but the surprising star of the dish is…the salad? It is extremely well-balanced alone, with the bitter and peppery arugula ensuring the berry forward dressing does not overwhelm the palate. More importantly, it complements both of the entrées and their otherwise extremely rich components.
The Bandeja El Cartel
If I’m being completely honest (and I always am), Bandeja El Cartel piqued my interest purely because it contains rice and beans, which often seems like the grand litmus test for Colombian cuisine. But the adventure doesn’t stop there; the plate is dotted with a delightful assortment of mouth-watering morsels.
There is chicharrón, a perfectly fried pork belly that is equal parts lusciously soft and teeth-shatteringly crisp. Then there is a link of Colombian chorizo, smoky and fatty with a nice snap on the casing.
Rounding out the meat offerings is a fairly generous portion of steak, sliced thin and not, surprisingly, overcooked. It is tasty but not terribly beefy or intense in flavor and is my least favorite of the three.
Moving across the plate are the maduros, sweet plantains that I’ve never cared for but that appear and smell standard (my eating companion happily noshes away), an arepita (a miniature corn cake cooked on a flat griddle for a sweet and smoky experience), and an avocado quarter. Then we get to the goods – the rice, egg, and red beans. The rice is well cooked, pleasantly seasoned, and not mushy.
The red beans are also very tasty and bring forth no complaints. The egg might have been considered by some to be a hair overcooked, but there is nothing more luxurious than an egg yolk that has just begun to set. It is almost unfathomably decadent, while the less cooked portion perfectly coats the rice underneath. With the beans and avocado, it is comfort on a spoon. They could have given me a bowl of just this and I would have been utterly besotted.
The dessert arrives without warning or fanfare. Immediately I recognize it as a très leches cake, and upon the first bite, it is admittedly better than average.
The cake is spongy and a little crumbly, happy to absorb the trio of milk that give the dish its name. The texture is neither too dense nor too mushy, and the house-made frosting is delicious – more buttery than whipped cream, with a satiating mouthfeel.
The entire dessert is remarkable for its lack of overwhelming sweetness. Instead, it manages to taste almost refreshing after such a savory meal. We gratefully accept, and by the time we are done, not a crumb remains.
This is a fun restaurant, and certainly several steps up from ordering cafeteria-style, receiving your chicharron, rice, and beans in a round aluminum takeaway container and eating on the sidewalk outside.
The taste remains, however, and brings back both the nostalgia and satisfying heft of such places. The ambiance is relaxed, friendly, and unassuming; the service is efficient. With summer now in full force, this is a restaurant to add to your catch-all list – good for families, good for dates, and good for good food.
Three best bites
- The salad. There, now you have it in writing.
- The octopus tostone cup. Another true surprise of the night.
- The combination spoonful of rice, red beans, egg, avocado, and salad. If that’s not heaven, I don’t know what is.
The bathroom corner
Small but relatively clean, with a working toilet, sink, and paper towels. Nice and concise.
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