If a recent Saturday night dinner crowd clamoring for tables at Corto Lima (they don’t take reservations) is any indication, it appears as if journeyman chef Jonathan Lundy, previously head man at Jonathan’s at the Gratz Park Inn and Coba Cocina, has found his forever home.
This intimate spot at the corner of Limestone and West Short is dedicated to the flavors of south of the border, and I don’t just mean Mexico. There are nods to Central and South America as well, although regional Mexican specialties dominate.
My dining companion and I began with a couple of the appetizers to go with the crispy chips that are fried to order. The first — a salsa trio ($7) combined the spiciness of salsa verde and zestiness of fire roasted tomato with the sweetness of pineapple-serrano. My only complaint — I wished it had been twice as large.
The second appetizer proved to be my favorite on the menu —– a guacamole with roasted garlic, red onion and barrel-smoked salt ($12) that is the best I’ve had outside of the state of Texas.
Again, my only quibble is the portion size — too small, especially if you are engaging in dueling silverware with your dining companion to see who will get the last bite. It’s that good.
Next, I opted for the steak tacos — two of them with grilled beef, pico de gallo and creamy fire-roasted poblano chiles enfolded in handmade corn tortillas ($8). The steak was tender; the tortillas fluffy and the pico de gallo tangy, making for a very satisfying dish.
The tacos, coupled with the two appetizers, would have made a complete meal, but I bravely soldiered on, ordering one of the platos principales (main dishes).
The sugar cane shrimp, lightly dusted with a pineapple drizzle ($16), was delicious, as was the accompanying crispy sweet potato. I was, however, disappointed with the side dishes of black beans and rice. Considering the sophisticated flavor profile of everything else, both were surprisingly bland.
There was nothing bland in the dishes chosen by my friend, who started off with a Caesar salad with ancho chili-dressing, crispy hominy and queso fresco ($8). This Caesar resembled its traditional counterpart in name only, having generous pieces of charred Romaine interspersed with corn and black beans.
As her main course, she chose one of the platos pequenos (small plates) — huitlacoche quesadillas ($12). I found out from my foodie friend that huitlacoche, somewhat unfamiliar in the U.S., but a highly prized superfood in Mexico and South America, is actually a fungus which enhances the value of a corn crop. Dense with nutrients, the flavor is a cross between a mushroom and a truffle.
One thing that surprised me about Corto Lima’s menu is the number of vegetarian dishes in a cuisine that is heavy on meat products. I counted 12 among the 29 menu options.
The restaurant recently started offering brunch on Saturday and Sunday. While the brunch menu isn’t as extensive as the dinner menu, what they have will do nicely. On the day I went, there were three choices: egg white arepas (two crispy corn cake sandwiches with chimichurri, queso fresco, arugula and avocado, $10); a breakfast burrito ($12), and my choice, blue corn waffles with jalapeno-honey, strawberries, bacon and whipped cream ($10).
Pair your choice with a south-of-the-border beverage such as the cactus blossom or pisco brunch punch, and you have the makings of a bountiful brunch.
Lundy, who clearly has an affinity for Mexican and Latin American cuisine, has found his niche with this charming cantina-style eatery.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.
Address: 101 W. Short at the corner of Limestone
Hours: Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday and Monday, 11:30 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.; Sunday Brunch, 11:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Reservations: They don’t take reservations, although they do have priority seating for large parties (you must call the day of.)
Other: Parking near the restaurant can be a problem. My friend and I went early and still spent 30 minutes searching for a parking space.