For nearly 93 years, the Cortés family has been making chocolate in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, creating a brand that's as widely known on those islands as, say, Hershey's is here in New York City. Especially famous for their hot chocolate, they opened their first restaurant in 2013 in Puerto Rico's Old San Juan, an all-day cafe with a full menu of savory and sweet dishes.
Last week, after multiple pandemic delays involving the construction of the actual building in which it resides, the family finally opened their second Chocobar Cortés, on Alexander Avenue in Mott Haven. Here they serve a mix of savory and sweet — with a menu that's suitable for breakfast, brunch, lunch, snacking, drinks (boozy and/or chocolatey), or dessert — and based on a feast I had earlier this week in the friendly, vibrant space, it's one of the best new restaurants anywhere in the city right now.
That Chocobar Cortés landed in the South Bronx is no accident. As Carlos Cortés, who runs the restaurant arm of the company, told Gothamist, "If you are Puerto Rican or Dominican, you grew up with our chocolate. So for us, it was important to come to where our community is in NYC. I've been living here for the past 15 years and seen how a lot of the neighborhoods that were typically Puerto Rican or Dominican, like Williamsburg, or the Lower East Side, have lost their essence because of gentrification. And so if Mott Haven is going to be the next frontier in terms of the city-center expansion, it's important for us to plant our flag and say, yes this neighborhood is going to change, but we, the Puerto Rican and Dominican community, are going to be included in it. We are going to be part of what that change will look like."
The food here is excellent, and though most everything on the menu has chocolate listed as an ingredient in some way, the inclusion is subtle much of the time. The first-rate Chocoburger, for example, is a fat, densely-textured patty (it eats more like a meatball than a typical burger) topped with melted cheddar, onion, lettuce, and tomato, and served with a mess of well-seasoned curly fries. The chocolate part of the dish is in the ketchup, which is served on the side and is very good when dumped over everything else on the plate.
Platters and sandwiches involving steaks, chicken, and roasted pork are all slightly chocolatized as well, with a bit of cocoa in the meat's rub. And one of the best things I ate involved no discernable chocolate at all, a Mallorca Iberica sandwich of salty serrano ham, strong manchego, and a slathering of guava butter pressed between the namesake Purto Rican sweet bread, which the restaurant has specially made by the local South Bronx bakery Il Forno. This is sensational comfort food.
Meanwhile, other dishes are extremely chocolatey. There's Chocolate French Toast, Vanilla-Chocolate Pancakes with strawberry marmalade, and a wonderful Chocolate Grilled Cheese sandwich, which doesn't hide either ingredient and is an absolute must-order. The chocolate-cheese combo is something of a Cortés signature; their legendary hot chocolate comes in nine different varieties here — I had the traditional Puertorriqueño — and each is served with a small block of cheddar on the side, which you drop into your drink like a sugar cube.
The menu in the South Bronx is pretty much the same as you'll find in Old San Juan, and was developed by Cortés corporate chef Ricardo De Obaldia. The secret weapon here, though, seems to be chef Maria Martinez, a native of Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, who had ten years' experience in NYC kitchens before running things on Alexander Avenue. She has a knack for balancing tricky mixes in a way that gives everything a chance to shine. To give one more example, her mangú, or mashed plantains, is superb, even when buried under three runny eggs, studded with chorizo, and splattered with hot sauce. The food is fun, to be sure, but Martinez is a seriously good cook.
The space is divided into two rooms, the main dining area with a full bar on the right, and a counter-service shop on the left with coffee and hot chocolate, a few pastries, and lots of Chocobar merch and provisions. Both are filled with specially commissioned art ("my family's other passion," as Cortés put it), including pieces from their non-profit organization Fundación Cortés, like the framed images of female Afro-Puerto Rican comic book superhero, La Borinqueña, created by the Bronx native Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez.
"The community here is amazing," says Cortés, who lives just a few blocks away from the restaurant. "One of the advantages to being here in the South Bronx is that everyone is so excited to collaborate and help build this community into something different and special. You can feel that commitment on so many different levels, whether it's other businesses, local government, or all the people who live here. I've had grandmothers come and ask for me just so they can sing our jingle. They tell me, 'Thank you so much for coming here, thank you for opening in the Bronx. This feels like I'm walking into my childhood.'"