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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
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Cortadito Express is more than a novelty act
Out of the closet
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Cortadito's appetizer platter: A must to munch on.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

The first thing you hear about Cortadito Express is that it's located in what used to be the coatroom of the Cardinal Bar. Yes, the engineering of that build-out is impressive, but more so is the Cortadito Express dining room: the streets of downtown Madison. The little package that is Cortadito's kitchen opens up to serve any and all Wilson Street passers-by. What comes from it is a quality of street food that Madison has been waiting for.

Cortadito Express is a project spearheaded by brothers Chris and Prentice Berge, along with two chefs: Natt Spil head chef David Oliver and Joshua Wright. Joey Dunscombe of the Weary Traveler also provided some menu assistance to what was referred to early on as Cafe Cortadito. (Prentice Berge assures me it's Cortadito Express now.)

An awning-covered walk-up window provides the most accessible approach (though there's also an indoor ordering counter through the Cardinal), and food can be taken to go or eaten in one of the bar's many indoor and outdoor seats.

Though there are appetizers and soups, Prentice Berge doesn't envision the primarily Latin/Spanish menu expanding a lot farther than "two knockout sandwiches and a great signature coffee." That signature coffee provides the name of the cafe; the cortadito is a Cuban creation, a creamy and sweet espresso drink that Cortadito Express doses with a house blend of white chocolate and sugar called White Magic. The result is a wee but potent beverage, great for sipping and definitely heartier than a simple espresso pull.

Cortadito does a fine take on the Keith Richards coffee drink, too: brewed coffee, espresso, brown sugar (yes, I'm sure it's an intentional reference) and more White Magic. It's a drink billed for DJs and restaurant industry professionals looking for a jolt of energy. Given Cortadito's late hours -- open until 3 a.m. every day but Sunday -- this is a crafty move.

Now, the man said there should be two knockout sandwiches. Cortadito Express confidently offers only two, and if they aren't knockouts, they're awfully close.

The Dirty Bird is not your abuelito's chicken salad sandwich. First, it's made with thigh meat rather than breast; dark meat's where the big flavors are, and this chicken is poached with chipotle peppers bold enough to keep up. Roasted corn adds sweetness, and a jicama slaw brings crunch. If the harissa aioli gets a little lost on your tongue, it at least provides some binding strength.

And no menu with Cuban roots should fail to serve a Cuban sandwich. Cortadito even named its Cuban "Ricardo," after Cardinal Bar owner Ricardo Gonzalez. This Cuban is a direct translation of the old standby, no funny stuff: roasted pork and ham, crisp pickles, and mustard that's strong but not too strong. (At the Berge family's other cafe, Barriques, the weapons-grade mustard on the Cuban literally makes me weep.)

Tying these two fine sandwiches together is a truly spectacular loaf of bread, created by Wright and also sold individually for two bucks a boule. This is bread you could eat on its own (or use to swab at the remains of a lovely chilled gazpacho). Alongside the Stalzy's hoagie roll, it's one of my favorite sandwich conveyances in town.

But then there are the value-adds: a tender and bright corvina ceviche (a fish similar to sea bass dressed with onion, garlic, cilantro and tomato, and topped with a little pea shoot action); chunky guacamole with fresh seasoned tortilla chips; and house-cured olives with a secret marinade recipe that I'm pretty sure contains chipotle but isn't as hot as the bartender warned.

These can be ordered individually or as part of an appetizer platter that also includes Cortadito's remarkable croquetas: the smoothest potato puree you could imagine, with garlic, some cheese, meat if you want it, deep-fried, with a little harissa aioli to dip them in. Their delicate golden-brown shells even managed to survive a trip home. You'd be crazy not to pick up an order walking to and fro between Williamson and the Square.

I haven't even mentioned the churros, whose sweet crunchy/creamy interplay mirrors the savory croquetas, but also includes a smooth, warm chocolate sauce for dunking and maybe drinking if no one's looking.

There's a Latin phrase, multum in parvo, that means "much in little." It may not be the same Latin that informs the menu at Cortadito Express, but considering the full-flavored wonders this miniature kitchen is turning out, it fits just right.

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