Food Without A Border
Two Raleigh restaurants—Jose and Sons and The Cortez Seafood and Cocktail—are pioneering a cuisine that doesn’t fit traditional expectations.
by Alex Dixon
photography by the Cortez Seafood + Cocktail
For Oscar Diaz and Charlie Ibarra, creators of the downtown Raleigh restaurant Jose and Sons, the food is an extension of their identity. Both Diaz and Ibarra are first-generation Americans, and both have parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. “Whatever hardships come with being in that situation, as a first-generation American, you’re neither fully American nor fully Mexican. I flip it and it’s easy to pick and choose the things I like from both,” says Diaz, who is the executive chef. “That’s what we did with food. We just picked what we really like from both [identities] and we represent it authentically to how we view food. That’s Jose and Sons.”
Following the successes of the five-year-old Jose and Sons, the pair launched a seafood-centric concept on Glenwood Avenue in 2017. The Cortez Seafood + Cocktail continues the theme of drawing inspiration from their Mexican-American heritage and their travels to other regions of the world. Traditional Southern staples like butterbeans prepared with garlic, Parmesan butter, roasted cherry tomatoes, bacon, and a poached egg sit alongside menu items such as gambas al ajillo, a hands-on Spanish dish with shrimp sautéed in garlic-butter-lemon-thyme oil and plated with a toasted baguette for dipping. Hamachi collar marinated in soy is served with avocado salsa, aji amarillo, togarashi, and a lemon vinaigrette.
“It’s funny because a lot of people, like true Southerners, they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know we couldn’t even understand why you had butterbeans on the menu, that’s some real homey food, but we ordered them and I swear I’ve never had butterbeans like that,’” Diaz says. “I’ve always been traveling like a nomad, just trying to find a home, and now I feel like this is home. It’s in the South; I feel Southern. And to hear that from Southern people, like, ‘Man, butterbeans are delicious, but we’ve never had them prepared like this,’ that kind of stuff makes me feel good.”
Diaz’ career and life have led him to multiple parts of the country. He was born and raised in Chicago, and worked in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In Vegas, he worked at the fine-dining French restaurant Alizé, which furthered his culinary prowess, although he always felt something was missing. Throwing a chili in a dish or adding some acidity or color to classical French preparations was discouraged, and Diaz wanted to find an outlet where he could showcase his creativity and identity. Diaz came to Raleigh eight years ago and linked up with Ibarra. Ibarra wasn’t new to the area’s restaurant scene; his family opened El Rodeo on Hillsborough Street in 1993.
“The movement of thinking local ... we knew that was going to be a principal thing that we wanted to do with our menus,” Ibarra says. “It just didn’t make sense for us to do Southwest Tex-Mex, which is essentially what El Rodeo is. Those restaurants definitely have a place, but we figured our place would be something more driven by local things and local sourcing. That’s when we decided if we’re going to do it that way, we have to go to more of a Raleigh-Mexican, North Carolina–Mexican cooking; it just makes sense for the terroir of the place we’re in.”
Jose and Sons blends more components between the cultures than just the food. Ibarra grew up on a ranch and Diaz’ family came from a rural area of Mexico, so the pair found commonalities between farmhouse elements in both America and Mexico for restaurant décor. Jose and Sons, which has the tagline “Hola, Y’all,” effortlessly blends cuisines to create dishes without borders, like The Cortez. Tamales made with steamed masa patties are filled with braised collard greens, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, and a green pumpkin seed salsa. Instead of chicken and waffles, the restaurant serves “Chicharron and Waffles,” and the marinated skirt steak is paired with stewed chorizo-pepper-bacon-beer black eyed peas, Brussels sprouts, salsa ahogada, and scallions. At The Cortez, an oyster bar serves North Carolina–sourced oysters, while a “MexRib” sandwich—a play on the McRib—is topped with mustard-based Carolina Gold barbecue sauce.
“I finally feel that I have a canvas which I can paint on and [use] all of the proper techniques, the discipline, and everything I’ve learned—but now I can add in my own flavors, because they’re flavors I grew up with. And whether you respect them or not, at the end of the day, it’s flavor,” Diaz says. “There’s a lot of flavors around the world that aren’t governed by any border whatsoever. That’s the idea ... and this is my style.”
Sweet Potato Taquitos Dorados
A holiday favorite from Oscar Diaz and Charlie Ibarra.
8 to 12 corn tortillas
2 sweet potatoes
4 cloves minced garlic
2 sliced tomatoes
5 chile de árbol
2 tsp oregano
2 cups shredded lettuce
1 cup queso fresco
1 cup sour cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Peel sweet potato, cut into eighths, place sweet potato into pot, and cover with water. Add salt and boil until fork tender. Strain and set aside.
2. Heat pan; add cooking oil and minced garlic until golden and aromatic. Add sweet potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and toss.
3. For salsa, add 4 tomatoes and chile de arbol in pot with water. Simmer until tomatoes are soft (but not exploded). Place in blender; add oregano and a half cup of cooking water. Blend until smooth. Season with salt.
4. Heat tortillas until pliable. Wrap in towel to maintain warmth. Place sweet potato in tortilla and fold in half while lightly putting pressure to further smash the sweet potato between the tortilla. Repeat until all are assembled.
5. Pan-fry the assembled tacos, turning them over until the tortilla is crisp on both sides.
To assemble the dish: Place the taquitos on a plate and top with chopped lettuce. Bathe the lettuce and tacos with salsa; add avocado, tomato slices, queso fresco, and sour cream. Squeeze a lime over the entire dish.
The Cortez Seafood + Cocktail
413 Glenwood Ave, Raleigh, NC 27603