Mexicali Mishmash

From graffiti to traditional decor, crucifixes to skulls, El Cortez’s look captures a bit of L.A.

Black-and-white paintings of skeletons sitting in bottles surround the turquoise trim of the natural wood doors leading into El Cortez. The worn-wood and brass-cross door handles feel like they’re straight out of a Robert Rodriguez film – think From Dusk Till Dawn or Desperado. But it’s what’s inside those first doors that give El Cortez its unique flair.

The space that El Cortez occupies used to be Wooly Bully’s, a bar off Whyte Avenue on 103rd Street that was best known for its giant bull mascot that hugged drunks on weekend nights. In February of 2014, local antiques collector and train aficionado, Bill Graham, bought the failing bar. Along with running Graham Brothers Construction, he’s a train consultant on the AMC western drama, Hell on Wheels. And he’s also done work for other films including orchestrating the train scene at the end of the movie, Tideland. 

Right before he decided to buy the bar, he called his son, Michael Maxxis, for some direction.

“He called me and asked what kind of bar could I pull together in about six weeks for around $100,000,” Maxxis says.

Maxxis teamed up with high-school friend and local chef Alex Sneazwell – though Sneazwell is no longer part of the venture – to create El Cortez, a restaurant and bar that focuses on Mexican culture. But it’s unlike any other Mexican restaurant in Edmonton; that’s because the graffiti on the walls and the culture on the menu are inspired by Los Angeles. Initially, Sneazwell created a menu with Mexican fusion dishes, though Maxxis says the offerings have evolved to include more traditional dishes with American influences by a team of chefs from Mexico, New Orleans and the Congo.

And while Sneazwell’s main job was putting together a menu that added new spins on Mexican favourites, it was Maxxis’s job to create an interior for both the upper and the lower levels of the bar influenced by the Mexican culture found in L.A.

Maxxis had moved to the City of Angels in early 2013 – having lived in New Orleans, L.A. and Toronto – to direct music videos including Alexisonfire’s “The Northern” and Billy Talent’s “Saint Veronika.” He points out that he had only been in L.A. for three months before his father called him with the bar idea. “What was supposed to be a six-week project suddenly turned into eight months,” Maxxis says, adding that he still has his apartment in L.A. and he’s subletting it to singer-songwriter Matt Mays.

While in L.A., Maxxis was immediately drawn to the graffiti culture throughout the different neighbourhoods, and especially in infamous East L.A. Maxxis connected with Michael Flores, an actor and L.A. resident, who owns the Villain Life Apparel clothing line. Flores’s line had a lot of the L.A. flair that Maxxis was looking for, so he sought out Flores for guidance.

“I basically asked him to show me the coolest spots he knows,” Maxxis says. “He took us to some neighbourhoods that were pretty intense with the gang culture, but I also learned so much driving around with him and immediately knew the direction the bar should go in.”

Partnered with his long-time girlfriend, photographer Melanie Swerdan, Maxxis set out to find the individual pieces and artists that would make up his vision for what would become El Cortez. One of the first things Maxxis noticed was that a lot of the cantinas in the L.A. area had older fixtures and furniture. Maxxis knew that finding those individual pieces would be crucial in creating the right feel and atmosphere for his bar. On his way back to Edmonton, Maxxis went to Tuscon, Arizona, known for its Mexican imports, and picked up his first vital fixture: A set of 100-year-old turquoise cantina doors located at the front of the dining room.

The rest of the bar’s fixtures were compiled by sourcing out Edmonton and Calgary collectors and distributors. Graham was able to supply vintage iron-barred windows, among other items, commonly found in the L.A. area, and Maxxis’s connections brought him patterned upholstery for the booths and Spanish tiles for the front of the bar. With the fixtures in place, all that was left was the graffiti art for the walls, which proved much more difficult than Maxxis anticipated.

“We found the artists we wanted, and got to work trying to get them to come up from L.A. and be able to legally work in Canada,” Maxxis says. “Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to get these artists visas.”

With the fear that he wouldn’t be able to bring any artists up from L.A., Maxxis started finding local Edmonton artists to try and fill the space, including Karen Jones, who previously worked as a production designer for some of Maxxis’s music videos. Meanwhile, graffiti artist Curly created the patio wall and artist Malorie Schmyr also worked on the space, emulating the L.A. style. Jones created collages using magazine and newspaper clippings for the dining room by the stairs leading to the lower level. Schmyr created the skeletons and graveyard on the front of the building and another graveyard mural painted by the restaurant’s kitchen opening.

Two days before renovations were to begin, Flores came through for Maxxis and found an artist who was able to import himself up to Edmonton to add the authentic L.A. graffiti touch that El Cortez needed.

Leba is a street artist known for his politically charged work often found on billboards – he painted a bloody knife in the back of an American Apparel model and he changed a United States Census ad to read: “If we don’t know how big our community is, how do we know how big our prisons need to be?” His mix of traditional spray graffiti, stenciling (made popular by British street artist Banksy), and wheat pasting (where images and text from magazines and newspapers are placed on a surface and brushed with a strong glue), made Leba the perfect representative of the L.A. urban art scene for the El Cortez space.

Bringing in an artist as energetic and subversive as Leba meant there needed to be some ground rules set and even a little bit of supervision. “He had this ADD style of working,” Maxxis says. “He would be spraying one wall for a few seconds, then jump up and run across the room and start spraying another wall. We had to sort of stick around and watch him to make sure he would stay on track.”

There were times when Leba’s wandering mind led to near disasters. Maxxis recalls one day when he left Leba alone for just half an hour. When Maxxis returned, he found Leba spray-painting one of the walls – a 20-foot-long wolf’s head with a large purple tongue and lasers shooting from its eyes was taking shape. Maxxis immediately took to Google, trying to find a way to remove the paint without damaging the 100-year-old original brick underneath.

 “Thankfully, we got most of the wolf off, but you can still see some of the bright pinks and purples from the tongue.”

Preserving the original red brick from when the building was first built in the early 1900s was important to Maxxis for two reasons. First, it closely resembled a lot of the buildings he saw in L.A. while gathering ideas for El Cortez. Second, Maxxis didn’t know the brick was there when he started work on the space. He explains that the Wooly Bully’s owners put up drywall to cover the original red brick, so when he and the renovators first took the hammers to the walls to see what was underneath, he was ecstatic to find that part of the building’s history had been preserved.

Another surprise for Maxxis while he was tearing down the unwelcome drywall was large arch around the bar area. Maxxis thought the arch was reminiscent of those found in an old Catholic church; then he started placing crosses and other Catholic imagery closely tied to the L.A. gang culture throughout the space.

“I definitely went through my rebellious phase in [Catholic] school where I was very against the church,” Maxxis says. “But I always carried the art with me. It gives things such a different feeling, like you’re doing something wrong by enjoying it in ways outside of going to church. It’s embracing the dark side and I think that appeals to a lot of people.”

For all the loud and colourful art that makes up the top level of El Cortez, venturing downstairs almost feels like entering a totally different establishment, but still referencing the same culture. 

The walls heading down the stairs are covered in a drywall and stucco mixture that creates the feeling of a cave. Small nooks are etched into the walls with mounted lantern lights, making it seem more like a gothic horror film’s castle than a cantina. Once you reach the bottom of the stairs, the room opens up to a dark space with low ceilings illuminated solely by the custom-made neon signs from Neil Martin, who crafted them in his Edmonton garage.

Strewn between the basement’s vintage couches and chairs are barrels with El Cortez’s logo branded into the tops. Maxxis explains that the barrels are real Mexican tequila barrels. 

“The idea down here was to make it like a tequila cellar,” Maxxis says. 

He says that the women’s washroom was the only space where he wasn’t allowed to have any say, and the men’s washroom was the only room where Swerdan didn’t have any say.

“I wanted this washroom to look royal and elegant,” says Swerdan. “I wanted to make a washroom that every girl wants to have.” 

Maxxis and Swerdan have worked together on the sets of music videos in the past, so working so closely together wasn’t new for the couple, though they admit to having a few loud disagreements during the renovations. The couple is looking forward to continuing their work by adding more to El Cortez and also opening another new Edmonton bar upstairs in the same building.

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