There’s no doubt about it: it’s a scorcher out there. On a hot summer night in NYC, you want three things: cold drinks, delicious food, and air-conditioning — and if you can add a little atmosphere, all the better. If you find yourself in Hell’s Kitchen, looking for a break from the heat, a refreshing cocktail and some hearty eats, I recommend a new restaurant that tics all the boxes: El Cartel. Open for just over a month, El Cartel specializes in Colombian cuisine, serving a variety of regional favorites including fresh Shrimp Ceviche, Cazuela de Mariscos, Red Snapper, Chuleta de Cerdo, homemade Empanadas and a sampler platter known as Bandeja El Cartel (more about that coming up).
El Cartel offers a variety of seating options, so you can choose the vibe you want to accompany your meal. If you’re looking for a quick and casual experience, have a seat at the long bar up front, where you can watch your favorite sports teams, or maybe a telenovela, on one of the many wide screens, while you sip a cocktail and snack on one of your favorite tapas. The bartender seemed pretty friendly as well!
There are also tables with comfy banquettes where you can enjoy your meal while people-watching in this always exciting and vibrant neighborhood!
If you prefer to be away from the energy of the street, move to the large back room (which can be reserved for private parties) where you’ll find high-top seating, along with a living room-like lounge area that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before as part of a restaurant dining room.
A over-sized wall clock ensures you will arrive at any Broadway show prior to curtain time!
If you’re a sangria fan (as I am) you must get at least one glass of the Frozen Red Sangria (they also have White Sangria, if that’s more your thing). It’s $14 per glass and possibly the best sangria I have yet tasted. Just being serious.
Now let’s get to the food. We started with a shared tapas of delicious homemade Empanadas ($8): two Colombian patties stuffed with your choice of Beef, Chicken, Cheese, or Hawaiian-style (Ham and Pineapple) filling. These come a fiery pepper sauce on the side if you prefer your food spicy!
I loved both of these empanadas: the beef one was stuffed full of juicy, tender shredded beef, while the cheese empanada provided a nice contrast of textures, with creamy, melted cheese clinging to the crisp pastry crust. The spicy white sauce elevated the flavors of each. I would love to try the other fillings as well on a future visit.
Since neither my dining companion nor I had really had Columbian food before, we wanted to try a variety of different dishes — which is what you get with the specialty of the house, Bandeja El Cartel ($35). As Stefon from SNL would say “This Plate has Everything!” What you see here is a large piece of thinly-pounded grilled steak, a huge piece of Chicharron, Colombian chorizo (amazing), white rice, red beans, sweet plantains, arepita, a fried egg and a quarter of a fresh, ripe avocado. Holy cow, what a feast!
Everything on the plate is delicious, and the chicharron is especially fun to eat, because it is like crispy pork belly with huge chunks of also very crisp bacon attached. Wow! You can see why we did not order as many separate appetizers and side dishes as we usually do, because if you order Bandeja El Cartel then you are making a commitment to do some serious chowing down.
I felt like I ate continuously for half an hour, and I still took half of my food home (where I enjoyed it for two additional meals). So, color me very impressed with El Cartel!
Neither one of us could eat even one more bite after doing as much damage as possible to our entrees, but I felt like I needed at least one photo of a dessert to round out the review. Pictured here is the Postre Tres Leches ($10) (dense yellow cake soaked in sweet milk). It looks tiny but, trust me, just get one for the table and share it. El Cartel has other yummy-sounding desserts (Fried Cheese, anyone?) that I would like to try on a future visit when I do not eat so much of their amazing food in advance. Easier said than done, I suppose.
Service is attentive and friendly, with Manager / Co-Owner Bill Arango onsite to make sure your visit a memorable one. We can’t wait to go back!
El Cartel is located at 613 9th Avenue (between 43rd and 44th Streets), adjacent to the theater district — which makes it ideal for grabbing a meal before or after a Broadway show. Starting July 16th, they will be hosting a weekend Salsa Brunch, so you know that’s going to be popular. For hours and more information, please visit them online at El Cartel NYC!