Bird’s the Word
El Cotorro slings tiny tacos and tasty ice cream
lotería card with a yellow and green parrot (or parakeet? Excuse me, my Spanish is rusty.) My zombie-ish arm reached out for the door handle and tugged, to no avail. Panic began to set in. No tacos? What was this madness? I squinted at the hours posted in the window. This new haven of taco delights barred its heavenly gates to slothful gluttons looking to eat between lunch and dinner. Damn. It was my own fault for not checking the hours beforehand. Oh, well. Fast-forward approximately 27 hours.
I walked in on a balmy Friday night to an immediate and cheerful greeting from the server [wo]manning the register. To my right was a warm, earth-red room with huge windows looking out on the street and naked light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. There were only a handful of customers at the time. To my left was a small ordering station backed by a delightful open kitchen with black-hatted chefs bustling in that whirlwind cooking dance. Everything looked clean and orderly, and I could see the fresh tortillas warming on the grill. In the corner was an ice cream drawer with around 10 different flavors. I turned and looked up at the menu over the counter, quickly realizing I wouldn't have to try very hard to taste every item on it.
There is always room for dessert. There were basic flavors like orange and cherry as well as more interesting ones like Negra Modelo, Irish coffee and grapefruit-habañero, all made fresh daily. I bought five small servings ($3 each) of the above mentioned flavors. (Go pig or go home.) The absolute best was the grapefruit-habañero that cut through the lingering flavors from the tacos and salsas.
I ordered a mango-rose agua fresca ($3), elote ($4) and four tacos ($3-4 each)—blackened cobia fish, nopales, purslane and papitas, and oxtail. My dining cohorts put in their orders, already surrendering to the fact that I was going to taste their food. We trooped back to the dining room, drinks in hand. My agua fresca seemed a tad bland, though both flavors were certainly there, but the more I drank, the more it grew on me and I realized that it wasn't bland, but that the rose flavor had a sort of muffling effect on the bright sweetness of the mango. My elote and my companion's chips and salsa arrived surprisingly fast. The corn looked a little lonely in its basket, but was lovely sprinkled with chile powder, cheese and more. I picked it up and sunk my teeth into the grilled vegetable, the yellow kernels popping juicily and mixing with the mild flavors dusted on the outside. The corn was perfect. The seasoning, however, could have used a little more punch. I reached over and helped myself to the chips and salsa. The portion size was remarkably small, but the chips were clearly house-made, which was a nice touch, though they were a little on the hard side.
Impressively soon, our orders started coming out. Our friendly and knowledgeable waitress set down our dishes and offered to gather the appropriate salsas from the salsa bar near the front door for each kind of taco. Though small (there are no large portions of anything), they were lovely: palm-sized house-made tortillas graced with verdant arugula, flashy pink pickled cabbage and cheery yellow mango. My favorite was the oxtail—meaty, heavy on my tongue and rich with grease that dripped down my hand. I also particularly enjoyed the bites from my companions' lamb leg taco with mint crema that was surprisingly light and carnitas taco which had a pleasant sweetness.
The vegetarian offerings were the low point of the meal. The nopales (cactus) taco seemed to be missing the actual nopales, the barren tortilla pitifully cradling only two thin fried green onions and a smattering of white sauce; and the batter to green onion ratio just left the whole thing falling on a single oily note.
On the other hand, the sure way to cure any failing flavors was to dump my favorite of the six or so salsas on any taco: la morita. This particular salsa was an earthy red, much like the paint on the walls, and had a smoky chipotle-like heat that creeps up on you, burning your lips in a delightful way. Our erudite waitress even gave us the lowdown on how the chefs make it and what kind of pepper is used.
Next, I waddled over to the Mexican ice cream counter to greedily eye all the flavors. There is always room for dessert. There were basic flavors like orange and cherry as well as more interesting ones like Negra Modelo, Irish coffee and grapefruit-habañero sorbet, all made fresh daily. I bought five small servings ($3 each) of the above mentioned flavors. (Go pig or go home.) The absolute best was the grapefruit-habañero that cut through the lingering flavors from the tacos and salsas. It was bright, sour and refreshing with a gentle lick of flame at the back of my throat that steadily built to a merry fire by the time I was done. It was awesome.
Later trips elucidated other pleasant choices like the slightly sweet chicken tinga taco with bright, sour, crunchy pickled cabbage; ceviche ($4) with crunchy cucumber, pleasantly dense and fibrous shrimp, and a fresh pine-y flavor; rich, sweet tres leches ice cream; and heavenly, nectarous and herbal honey-chamomile ice cream. So what's the word? There are some seasoning issues that definitely need work, but there is good food to be had and spectacular service. With a little more work, El Cotorro has a bright future.
111 Carlisle NE
Hours: Sun-Sat 11am-2pm, 5-9pm
Vibe: Friendly and natural in a minimalist sort of way
Alibi Recommends: Oxtail taco, chicken tinga taco, grapefruit-habañero sorbet, morita salsa