Manhattan, NY

El Cartel Tapas Bar and Restaurant Brings Authentic Colombian Cuisine to Manhattan

Carlos L.

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Courtesy of El Cartel

El Cartel Tapas Bar and Restaurant is a new, family-owned restaurant serving Colombian cuisine and culture that has recently opened in Hell’s Kitchen operated by Bill Arango. While the playfully provocative name draws connections to perhaps the most infamous Colombian, Pablo Escobar, it actually comes from a popular Colombian telenovela, El Cartel de Los Sapos. From 2009 to 2011, Arango’s mother owned and operated a restaurant by the same name, El Cartel Panadería y Piqueteadero, in Queens where she also served as Chef. Seeing relatively few restaurants that fully display Colombian cuisine in Manhattan, Arango decided to open the second iteration of El Cartel on the high foot-traffic stretch of 9th Avenue in Manhattan to introduce the bounty of flavors to as many people as possible.

The restaurant’s menu is composed of signature dishes from the diverse regions of Colombia that inform the country’s cuisine and Arango’s mother’s recipes. Some menu highlights include Tostones Rellenos (Three green plantain cups fried to perfection; each topped with octopus, chicken, and steak, with a vegan option also available), Pechugo Buenaventura (Juicy chicken breast topped with fresh creamy seafood sauce made with shrimp, mussels, clams, octopus, and calamari, served with white rice) and Cazuela de Mariscos (Traditional Colombian seafood casserole made with shrimp, mussels, clams, octopus, and calamari served with white rice).

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Courtesy of El Cartel

My date and I walked into El Cartel and were immediately greeted by Bill, who was as pleasant as ever and guided us to our seats. We started our meal with drinks; I had the gin and tonic (I know, not very adventurous) and my date had an El Cartel, one of the restaurant's signature drinks. My drink was crisp, clean, smooth and everything you’d expect from a gin and tonic and the El Cartel drink was just as tasty.

We took a look at their tapas menu and just had to try the Empanadas. We got chicken empanadas but you can also have your choice of beef, cheese or Hawaiian style (ham and pineapple). Coming in two per order, both empanadas had a nice, flaky crust and were packed with filling; I definitely can’t wait to come back and try some of the other varieties. We also ordered the Shrimp Ceviche (Shrimp dressed in lime juice, cilantro, mango and purple onions in a homemade pink sauce). This tapa was simply divine and had a nice blend of sweet and savory. I’ve been having shrimp with some amazing sauces lately and this was simply the best, I was even dipping the empanada in it!

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Courtesy of El Cartel

Our entrees kept the great flavors coming! My date wanted a taste of everything El Cartel had to offer so he ordered the Bandeja El Cartel (A well-packed dish consisting of steak, egg, rice, red beans, chicharrón, sweet plantain, Colombian chorizo, arepita and avocado) and let me just say… that chorizo and chicharron are out of this world! I ordered the El Cartel Burger (a Juicy burger filled with melted mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, Hawaiian sauce and crumbled rippled potato chips served with fries) which was cooked to perfection and came together to create a nice Colombian twist to an American classic. I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the side of sweet plantains we had that tasted just like my mother’s. For dessert, Bill suggested the Oblea (Wafers stuffed with Arequipe and a homemade blackberry sauce; although we had a cherry sauce). This was a nice end to a delicious meal and was sweet while not being overpowering.

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Courtesy of El Cartel

I really loved my dinner at El Cartel and I definitely recommend it for anyone looking for authentic Columbian food as well as American food with a Columbian twist for those who want to place it safe. El Cartel truly has something for everyone while staying true to its roots. I’ve already told Bill that I’ll be back with my mother (who rarely enjoys a meal when we go out) and I’m confident she will love the food. Be sure to stop by El Cartel Tapas Bar and Restaurant if you’re in Hell’s Kitchen, you won’t be disappointed. elcartelnyc.com

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Carlos is a New York City-based journalist with 10+ years of experience covering a wide array of topics such as music, art, fashion, entertainment and health and wellness. Carlos has also had cover stories in publications in the US and UK.

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