Despite what you may have heard, locals do go to the Strip, and they do go downtown. I know because they email me all the time to tell me about their dining experiences in both places, good and bad (though mostly good). And one of the places I hear about most often is Cafe Cortez at the El Cortez.
After a recent tip that the cafe serves challah with its matzo ball soup, I decided it was time for a revisit, mainly because that’s the kind of attention to detail you don’t often see. I did have the matzo ball soup, and to be honest, I wasn’t all that enamored of it. But more on that later because Cafe Cortez does have much to recommend it (beyond the fact that those 50 or older can get 50 percent off on Wednesdays).
As you might suspect, Cafe Cortez is tucked away off the casino. The decor is sort of old school, with lots of dark woods and a few booths tucked along the walls. The menu, too, is decidedly retro.
We started with some onion rings ($5.95), which were both plentiful and among the best I’ve had in a long time. They were the wide type, sweet onions that were nicely crisp-crusted and not greasy, and one of the best parts of this starter was the remoulade sauce served with them. Because they’re so mild, sweet onions don’t bring a whole lot of flavor, so that boost was most welcome.
A grilled ham and cheese ($7.50) was a definite throwback, and in a good way. The smoky ham with just a touch of sweetness was paired with a surfeit of cheddar cheese that was thoroughly melted, the bread well grilled, the potato salad we chose on the side chunky and fresh-tasting.
And a cold and crisp iceberg wedge ($8.95) was a little different, with the bacon pieces, blue cheese, tomato chunks and bits of red onion piled separately, to be added at will.
But back to the soup ($7.95), and the challah, which we liked better. There were two thick slices, served plain, and when we asked for butter, our server brought a cup of some sort of “spread” that didn’t belong on the same plate with this bread. As for the soup, the matzo ball itself was a good rendition, firm enough without reaching the texture of a handball, and there was a lot of chicken and plentiful vegetable chunks. The problem was that the broth was both too thin and too bland, and while some of the chicken was nice, chunky white meat, other pieces hadn’t been picked over very well.
And a caveat: Since Cafe Cortez is off the casino, you’ll need to walk through some cigarette smoke to get to it. This isn’t the problem it used to be, but if you’re sensitive, consider yourself forewarned.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Email Heidi Knapp Rinella at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more of her stories at bestoflasvegas.com, and follow @HKRinella on Twitter.