I was stunned to learn from Melanie Knight ["Snack Food," November 4] that the Cortés Restaurant, most recently located at 404 North Shepherd, had closed. Say it ain't so, I wailed. I drove straight over and, sure enough, the place was shuttered and dark, and the sign out front had vanished from its pole. I jabbed at my cell phone with trembling fingers, only to confirm the ugly truth: Their telephone had been disconnected. My mission became clear. I had to find out what happened and if the Cortés family would resurface somewhere else.
I've been a fan of Cortés's cuisine -- those garlicky, chorizo-laden migas, of course, but even more the sunny yellow mountains of Sunday-only paella -- since 1980, when the family first opened its tiny West Alabama storefront, known then as the Cortés Deli. While it was never really a deli, more a meat counter with a couple of dining tables, the cramped cafe was an immediate hit in the neighborhood. Within two years Cortés doubled its floor space but still had a patient line of yuppie couples and families waiting every weekend morning.
In 1996 the Cortés family sought a larger space to the east, moving into that old mansion at 1512 West Alabama and rechristening itself Cortés Mexican Restaurant. That's right, they chose that same house of horrors, just north of the Menil Collection, that had scuttled so many restaurants in rapid succession, despite its pretty patio and plentiful off-street parking. Remember Jenny's Hideaway? How about Rio de Janeiro? No? Well, how about this, you scoffers: The haunted house has claimed its latest victim with the closing of the oddly named Podmore's Thatch.
"That house on Alabama seemed like an upscale move for Cortés," reminisces one former customag going on upstairs. I just didn't get it, so I didn't go anymore."
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For whatever reason -- the concept was too froufrou, the operation too large for the Cortés family to handle or just bad juju -- that second Alabama location didn't work out. They bailed out of the house less than a year later, on Christmas Eve 1996. Two weeks after that they reopened in the cozier cottage at the corner of North Shepherd and Feagan.
"You know, as much as I liked the Cortés Deli, I never could get used to that location up on Shepherd," a friend told me. Indeed, her family visited so often that her children's pictures were displayed on the family's bulletin board at the old deli. "The food was the same, maybe only a little more expensive, and the people were the same, but it just didn't feel the same. It felt cramped and run-down," she added sadly.
I spent this past week trying to contact the Cortés family members, brothers Luis and Patrick Cortés, and mom Esperanza ("call me Hope") Rodriguez, to find out what might have happened. Various cousins, nephews and in-laws politely refused to comment.
So I'm sorry to say that, as of press time, I can't tell you whether this story has a happy ending. Sure, Cortés's former chef Baudelio Pichardo found a new home at Tecate's, but what about the Cortés family themselves? Have they finally thrown in the towel, or will they ultimately find a happier place to feed their fans? I don't know, but I can tell you that in the meantime they will be missed. Especially on Sundays.