Chocoholics, rejoice! You no longer have to limit your cocoa consumption to dessert. You can enjoy chocolatey elements on cheeseburgers, grilled chicken, and roast pork.
Chocobar Cortés, a new Caribbean-inspired café located in a not-too-tropical corner of Mott Haven off the Major Deegan Expressway, infuses fine cocoa elements – many of them – into lively Puerto Rican and Dominican cuisine.
Call it fusion, like the Bronx. Executive chef Ricardo de Obaldia seamlessly weaves chocolate from the restaurant’s parent company, 93-year-old Chocolate Cortés, into comforting island cuisine. Chocolate in its many hues – dark and light, solid and liquid, sweet and savory – is incorporated into almost every dish on the menu.
A short stroll through the gentle gentrification district from the Third Avenue-138th Street stop on the # 6 line, Chocobar Cortés is hard to miss. Bright yellow awnings make it sunny in any weather.
The staff keep their warm promise. “Don’t worry, you’re with us now,” the waitress greeted me when I struggled to remove half a dozen layers of winter clothes.
I haven’t been to Old San Juan – the atmospheric former colonial district of the Puerto Rican capital – in years. But the 50-seat, high-ceilinged dining room with black-and-white checkerboard floors, pale green walls, cheerful cartoons, and three large arches above the bar, brought back happy memories. The Bronx restaurant is Chocolate Cortés’ first outside of Old San Juan, where the original was named Best Restaurant in the Caribbean by USA Today in 2017.
I was worried the chocolate shtick was just an attention grabbing gimmick. But unlike Michelin-starred chef Paul Liebrandt’s notorious experiments years ago with chocolate-coated eel at Papillon on Central Park South, Chocobar’s more subdued twists are safe, healthy, and simply delicious.
A balsamic-chocolate vinaigrette gives a smoky touch to a sandwich with grilled chicken and asparagus on sourdough bread. The cocoa appears two more times on the plate. The juicy meat is seasoned with a proprietary blend of chili and cocoa that makes it tangy and unique, a far cry from the standard brand of overcooked, flavorless rounding poultry. On the side, there are irresistible fried fries with an earthy, sweet and sour chocolate ketchup. All for just $ 16.50.
Chocobar executive director Carlos Cortés, the fourth generation to be in the family business, said their bestseller was grilled chocolate cheese. It’s an incredibly undervalued ($ 9.25) sandwich of sharp cheddar and chocolate butter on brioche. The dish is heaven on the palate, with the chocolate butter functioning as a subtle mole that stops just before setting off the cheese.
The Spanish Serrano Ham Croquetas ($ 11) are another crowd pleaser. Breaded and perfectly crisp, they’re strong enough to dip in a rich dark chocolate sauce, turning them into a delicious salty-sweet ooze bomb.
On the menu, no less than nine kinds of hot chocolate. The one to catch is a jaw-dropping 80 percent black Puerto Rican ($ 7.50), which comes with a small piece of yellow cheddar cheese on the side to mix.
“It’s a Puerto Rican tradition,” Cortés explained. “Historically, people enjoyed hot chocolate with cheese. It’s an easy and affordable meal for families on Sunday evenings.
I tried unsuccessfully to melt my cheese in cocoa but it failed to dissolve. Regardless, the drink was still filled with a wonderfully complex, almost mysterious flavor.
Cortés, 34, a Columbia graduate, spent years getting Chocobar off the ground. He signed the lease just before Covid-19 hit. Because construction hadn’t started, he didn’t have to pay rent during the pandemic. “Later, we were able to renegotiate our lease terms,” he said. The owner was “very cooperative”.
Customers have come from the neighborhood and far beyond. Since opening in mid-December, Chocobar has only served until 3 p.m. daily due to staff issues. But, the hours will be extended until 7 p.m. from Saturday.
Spring will bring outdoor seating on both sides of the corner – and surely more development in the surrounding area.
“It was important for us to put up our flag and say, ‘This neighborhood is going to change,’” Cortés said.