I wade through an ocean of superheroes, zombies, and sexy cats to find The Cortez. (Why, I can't help but wonder, are there never sexy dogs?) A pirate—sparkly, with a dagger strapped to her left arm—greets my friend and me at the door, which bleeds onto the patio, which bleeds onto Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. This just happens to be the center of N.C. State's bar scene on a Saturday night, two days before Halloween.
But at least I get to see how fun the staff is. The hostess, servers, and even the raw oysters are "all dressed up." In menu-speak, this means on the half shell, served here topped with bell pepper, shallot, serrano, cucumber, lime, salt, pepper, and ceviche juice. Like the combo of cat-ear headband, face glitter, fishnet stockings, and combat boots, this can be just a bit too much. Smaller oysters do get smothered in the getup, but the larger ones pull off the ensemble well.
You can also order them naked. From five to six p.m. every night, oysters are one dollar each. They are served on ice chips, with the usual suspects in tow: cocktail sauce, hot sauce, and lemon, plus a rosé mignonette, which I almost drank by itself.
If you're torn between raw and baked, get baked. It's worth noting that I never say this. I love oysters because they are salty, briny, impossible to mess up. Just shuck and slurp. Baked oysters, on the other hand, are finicky. When your casserole "dish" is an inch-wide shell, there's zero room for error, and it's easy to dollop a bit too much butter or keep it a moment too long under the broiler. But The Cortez nails it. Their version is smothered with creamed greens and salami, parmesan bread crumbs, and mezcal.
Who in his right mind would think to put all that together? Chef Oscar Diaz. You probably recognize him and owner Charlie Ibarra from their first venture, Jose and Sons, a Mexican-Southern fusion restaurant in Raleigh's warehouse district.
While Jose and Sons is huge—5,800 square feet—The Cortez is relatively pint-sized, in the spot formerly occupied by Cafe Helios. It seats forty inside, another twenty outside. But I can't imagine wanting to eat on the patio when the interior is so pretty. Facing an open kitchen is a bright turquoise booth nearly the length of the room. Plants sit leaf-to-leaf on windowsills, sipping sunshine. There is macaw-patterned wallpaper, and the bar, which has the ironic spirit of an altar, is crowned with a black-and-white felt board. Your Weed Spot, it reads. Wait, what? Oh—Your Seaweed Spot (with "Sea" in teeny font).
This cheeky sense of humor is all over the seafood-driven menu. You can hang out with the Wu-Tang Clams: white wine-steamed middlenecks with hot capicola, bell pepper, and onion. Like the baked oysters, these underscore how shellfish and pork are #couplegoals. The savory, lush broth begs to be slurped with shells. And don't be shy about it.
You can get (sea)weed butter with Yellow Dog bread (this costs, ahem, $4.20). Or that same butter on sautéed mushrooms. I opted for those, with spinach, radishes, and chives. But no salt? It seemed entirely forgotten, which is disappointing when it's the one ingredient you don't want to forget.
Then again, many dishes at The Cortez have a lot of ingredients. Take the Outer Banks seared scallops with a Thai-style watermelon and tomato salad, a mirin-pickled cucumber, carrot, and onion slaw, and so many squiggles of "squid ink," our waiter says as he sets down the plate. "So definitely get that involved." The scallops were textbook, with crusty edges and creamy centers. I only wish they lost a few accessories.
Alternatively, the gambas al ajillo are all about simplicity. They are split, with the shells still on, and grilled, so they crisp and curl. Eat them with your fingers and use toasty bread to soak up all the garlic butter. This sort of moment makes The Cortez reverberate loudly, like the parties just outside its door.
Also reliable is the ceviche. It comes in two varieties: "Tiger-style," with tuna, toasted corn nuts, and leche de tigre broth, and a red snapper with tomatoes, cilantro, basil, and onion, served with thick tostada chips, to use instead of cutlery. Both fish rotate regularly based upon coastal availability.
Of course, this also influences the menu's prices. The shared plates, like those shell-on shrimp, with five per serving, average around twelve dollars. The entrees average around twenty. though you might never get one. And there are thirteen shared and raw-ish items, compared to three entrees.
The Cortez is not meant to be an app-and-entree kind of experience. Between the ceviche and tropical wallpaper and weed jokes, you start to feel like you're on a trip somewhere, anywhere else. And the cocktail menu only amplifies this feeling. You can get an O.T. Daiquiri with toasted coconut rum, lime, brown sugar, and fresh pineapple. Or, "I would recommend the Staycay," our waiter says. "I have good taste!" he adds.
Agreed. The gin drink has lemon, honey, elderflower, and a vinho verde float. It arrives in a collins glass with a neon green straw and a purple flower dangling off the edge, like a lily in a pond. I could drink enough of those to actually believe I'm on vacation. And at The Cortez, for a couple of hours, I am.