fresh NC-sourced seafood + inventive cocktails
by Sammi with Offline
What: Award-winning restaurant serving fresh NC-sourced seafood + inventive cocktails
Where: 413 Glenwood Ave, Raleigh, NC 27603
When: Tues-Thurs 5-10p; Fri-Sat Kitchen 5-10, Bar 5-Until; Sun 3-8:30p
Why we love them:
- The kitchen is run by James Beard Award-nominated Chef Oscar Diaz (also of Jose and Sons) and his crazy passionate team.
- They’re dedicated to sustainability, upcycling all hyperlocal ingredients daily, and responsibly working towards zero-waste status.
- The menu is full of specialty seafood dishes made in-house and sourced from North Carolina’s coast. If it’s fresh and available, they’re serving it with style.
- They’ve got a full-service bar with Tiki-style cocktails and rum aplenty.
- Their year-round patio is perfect for enjoying their famous dollar oyster happy hour happenin’ daily from 5-6p.
Believe it or not, you’ll find fresh catches and ceviche, oysters and octopus, and gorgeous cocktails tucked away in a tropical oasis in Glenwood South (yes, that Glenwood South). Swing by their famed Oyster Happy Hour and you might just forget you’re smack dab in the middle of Raleigh. But you are, in fact, at The Cortez, a nationally recognized, award-winning seafood restaurant that’s committed to sustainability and the celebration of NC’s coastline. Step inside and prepare to be transported to a tropical paradise where NC’s bounty shines, the patio is open year-round, and the Tiki vibes always abound.
The Cortez is chef-driven (by the likes of a James Beard-nominated Chef) and completely dependent on seasonal ingredients, what’s fresh and available, and what lends to their sustainability practices (that have recently won high praises from folks like USA Today). It’s inspired by Chef Oscar Diaz’s travels and food experiences, an ode to Mexican-American cuisine with a touch of the forward-thinking twists he’s known for.
But all of this should come as no surprise because their focus on sustainability is notably unmatched. They keep their ingredients as hyperlocal as possible—upcycling every single ingredient to use it to its fullest potential—integrating them into all of those prize-winning dishes that the bigwigs (and locals) can’t stop raving about. From avocado pits repurposed for orgeat syrup, to produce scrap garnishes that elevate the presentation of a plate, they’re thinking outside of the box to bring us inventive dishes won’t find anywhere else.
While the food is definitely the star of the show, the ambiance is a close runner up. The restaurant is designed to feel like a shipwreck on a deserted island in paradise, which is basically the coolest decor concept we’ve come across. There’s a lush tropical plant wall that pops from the back and teal blue tufted leather booths that are so vibrant, they make all the vacation vibes feel real. Large globe lights illuminate the space throughout while cement accents integrate an urban feel that’ll remind you that you are, indeed, in the city, and keep you from totally floating away in this tropical paradise.
What to order
Their menu is driven by our coast’s bounty, so while you may not be able to enjoy the same dish you ordered during your last visit, you’re bound to find something new and equally delicious. There are, however, a couple of fixed categories that you’ll always find on the menu: shrimp, whole fish, a massive sandwich, something vegetarian, and something non-seafood. But no matter what you get, know it’s sustainably made, freshly sourced, and totally unique to this spot.
Cortez’s menu is one that’s made to be shared, which is awesome because it means you and your crew will get to make a serious dent in the menu. To get started, order oysters. They’re sourced daily from the coast, available until they run out, and are only a dollar (one dollar!) a piece during Happy Hour from 5-6p each day. After that, four to five small plates should be enough for two people, but nobody’ll raise an eyebrow if you opt for a full feast. In fact, most folks know to order a couple of rounds of food. Here, the world is your—for lack of better word—oyster.
Fresh Small Plates and Entrees of Stellar Seafood Dishes
The Snapper Ceviche is a refreshing finger food that’ll start your meal off right. It’s a mixture much like a chunky seafood dip that’s loaded with NC snapper, cucumbers, onions, and served with tortilla chips, perfect for scooping and sharing with the table.
If you’re not an adventurous eater, you might overlook the Spicy NC Swordfish but don’t, because you’ll miss out on some seriously sensational seafood. Marinated in guajillo chile sauce and perfectly grilled, this tender filet gets plated with fried rice, bok choy, mushrooms, fried egg, and garnished with a drizzle of chile oil and squid ink. It’s kind of Korean, kind of spicy, and kind of our favorite.
Chef always knows best, especially Oscar Diaz. His go-to? The Chitlins of the Sea. It’s a dish that pays homage to Mexican-style street flavors with greased tortillas and octopus cooked in beef fat. Looking for something more seafood-centric? The Charred Octopus is just as divine and served up with buttered beans and other delish fixings.
Another chef-fave is surprisingly non-seafood: the MexRib, a big, juicy burger made with a hearty combo of house-smoked baby back ribs and pork shoulder, served with all the fixin’s (including salt and pepper fries) because he believes every menu needs a massive, two-hands-needed burger or sandwich.
Flame-Lit Cocktails + Other Inventive Sips
They’ve got a beer selection complete with six rotating drafts of North Carolina brews (including a sangria on tap!). They’ve also got a superb selection of vino and bubbly, to boot. But the real reason we’re there is for the flashy sips, and their Tiki-inspired cocktails are no joke. Inventive, liquored up, and oft served in funky glassware or even on fire. It’s a seasonal sitch that brings the most creative sips, along with a couple of mainstays that are good choices no matter the weather.
But the most aesthetic is, hands down, the Improved Planter’s Punch. It’s the kind of cocktail that your table neighbors will be whispering about when it’s brought to your table, and sooner or later, will be ordering themselves (#fajitaeffect). And can you blame them? It’s a massive flaming (yes, served on fire) punch bowl garnished with umbrellas, flowers, and other garnishes. It’s perfectly portioned for a few to share the sips.
The Cabin In The Woods is a spicy concoction of NC cayenne pepper-infused rum, coconut milk, mango, and earl grey, topped with a spear of toasted marshmallows. Oh yeah, it’s served in an eclectic, fiery red tin can cup. What’s cuter (and tastier) than that?
- The Cortez is best-enjoyed family-style, so if you’re down to share and try new things, you’ll be good as gold here.
- Not only is their spicy signature Salsa Macha a must (especially with oysters) but their Carolina reaper hot sauce is a match made for you spice-lovin’ folks.
- They’re pros when it comes to accommodating food allergies. In fact, most fried items already come gluten-free!
- Order extra bread with your Gambas and thank us later.
- Chef Oscar’s go-to drink is the Tupac Amaro (AKA Mezcal and Amaro). It’s not on the menu but ask for it, they know it well, and will whip one right up for you.
- Hit up ‘em up any day between 5-6p for Oyster Happy Hour, where you’ll score freshly shucked oysters for just a $1 each.
- Wine bottles are half-off on Tuesdays (so is vino by the glass!).
- Their Sunday Funday festivities now start at 3p, and they don’t play around when it comes to their bloodies garnished with fresh seafood and oyster shooters.
- Their late-night parties are a move where the bar is open ’til 2 and a DJ is spinning dance tunes all night long. The only catch? You’ll have to keep an eye on their social to find out when the next one is going down.