Richard Foss

Deep from the heart of Mexico [Restaurant review]

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Corazon’s Matt Briggs serves chipotle-glazed salmon, one of the restaurant’s boldly flavored dishes. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Corazon’s Matt Briggs serves chipotle-glazed salmon, one of the restaurant’s boldly flavored dishes. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Corazon’s rich, bold flavors mark the arrival of one of the area’s finest Mexican restaurants

 

by Richard Foss

It’s a sad fact that most Mexican restaurants around the South Bay serve food that is very much on the bland side.  When I mention this fact, people have been known to ask, “Can’t you just add hot sauce?”

Yes, I can, if heat is all I’m looking for, but a well-made Mexican sauce is richly savory and complex, and might include notes of dozens of spices and herbs. It may also use several kinds of peppers that may be fresh, dried, pickled, or smoked. You’re not going to replace that complexity with the typical hot sauce, which may contain nothing more than vinegar, salt, water, and red peppers.

The local Mexican food scene has been gradually improving, and one place on the Hill has raised the standard: Corazon in Rolling Hills Estates.

I’ll admit that I went in with low expectations, figuring that if I was going to find my spice level in some hole in the wall joint, not a location that has been many stylish high-end places. Corazon is still pretty sheik – there is a mix of modern and traditional Mexican art on the wall now, but the multilevel interior here is still quite attractive.

At first glance the menu is a straightforward list of old favorites, but look closely and you’ll see differences.  The cilantro Alfredo sauce on the shrimp enchiladas straddles Italian and Mexican ideas, and the calamari is marinated in buttermilk and served with cilantro aioli. A vegetable mix of zucchini, squash, onions, and corn is used as an accompaniment to several dishes; they’re all traditional Mexican ingredients, but rarely served this way.

Before testing innovations we started with the basics: appetizers of guacamole, a Caesar salad, and a carnitas taco. Even before these arrived we had a clue: the salsa served with the chips. It’s thick and has greater depth of flavor than most served locally, with flavors of oregano, cilantro, and what I’d guess are both fresh and roasted chillies. We expected to cool the heat with the guacamole that arrived shortly afterward, and though it helped there was a subtle mélange of chili flavors here too. If you like the simple version that tastes mainly of mashed avocadoes with citrus you might find this a surprise, but we liked the overtones of onion, cumin, and spice.

In a way it’s surprising that Mexican-style Caesars have taken so long to enter the mainstream — the salad was invented at an Italian restaurant in Tijuana, after all. Mexican versions have caught on recently, some of which involve involve spicy dressings or the addition of bell pepper. In my opinion those may be good salads but that aren’t really a Caesar any more. This version added shredded tortilla chips and some roasted pumpkin seeds, and was topped with queso fresco rather than parmesan. I found it slightly out of balance and a bit too mild; I like the traditional bold trio of garlic, pepper, and parmesan, and the Mexican cheese just didn’t have the depth of flavor to compete.

The carnitas taco was a return to form with a bold and citrusy tomatillo sauce and a sprinkling of mango salsa. It wasn’t actually the style of meat that I prefer because the pork lacked a fried crust, but the sauces were so over-the-top good that I didn’t mind.

On my two visits to Corazon I tried four main courses: chipotle-glazed salmon, chicken mole enchiladas, a carnitas burrito, and an unusual take on a chicken tamale. The traditional tamale is wrapped in either a cornhusk or banana leaf and steamed, and the wrapper keeps it moist and imparts some flavor. This looked more like lasagna, a square cornmeal cake topped with shredded chicken, “romero” sauce and topped with both jack and cotija cheese. Tamales aren’t usually topped with cheese or served sauced; this one seems to be a creation of the owner, Fernando Romero. There were so many unusual things about this that it took a moment to wrap my head around it and I briefly wondered if we had received the wrong order. Somehow it worked: the corn masa was silky and flavorful despite the lack of a wrapper, the chicken delicious despite being a topping rather than a filling.

The other dishes I tried were conventional by comparison, but boldly flavored. Salmon isn’t a traditional Mexican fish but the rich and slightly oily meat stands up to a spicy, delicately sweet sauce very well, and the vegetable mix it was served with put it over the top. The squashes, corn, and onions had been sautéed with green herbs and put over seasoned rice, and there were enough different flavors to make every bite interesting. I was delighted with the sauce on the chicken enchiladas too — it was a black mole made with chocolate for a thick texture and richness and spiked with plenty of herbs and chillies. It’s rare to find a mole of this complexity outside places that specialize in Oaxacan regional dishes, and if there’s a better version in the South Bay I haven’t had it.

The burrito was the only main course we tried that was made in a purely traditional manner, and it was a solid rendition of a favorite item. The roasted lemon on the side was a nice touch, and gave a sweet and sour kick when squeezed over the mix of meat, rice, and beans. As a meal it had some extra zip thanks to the sides of corn on the cob with crema on a bed of lightly pickled purple cabbage.  

The drinks were slightly less reliable than the food —  the “margaritas” were made with Korean soju rather than tequila, which is common in places with only a beer and wine license. I tried a cucumber-jalapeno margarita and without the tequila body and smokiness it was like drinking hot peppers with lime juice. Our server graciously replaced it with a sangria, which I liked a lot better. There are many wine-based drinks that complement Mexican food, and I think it would be better to do these well or experiment with agave wine drinks than serve an inferior margarita.

To finish we shared freshly made churros with slightly bitter chocolate sauce and ice cream, which is the perfect end of any Mexican meal as far as I’m concerned. Meals at Corazon are reasonably priced for the quality and the elegance of the surroundings, with most entrees priced between $13 and $20. This Mexican restaurant is worth a drive, as they are certainly the best on the Hill and some distance beyond.

Corazon is at 767 Deep Valley Drive in RPV. Open daily at 11 A.M., close 9 P.M. Su-Thu, 10 P.M. Fri-Sa. Wheelchair access to some areas – mention when reserving. Beer and wine served, street parking, Sunday brunch, some vegetarian items. Partial menu at corazonmexicankitchen.com, phone 310-377-0580. PEN

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