Valley culinary history is strewn with failed tapas. The petite and popular Lola Tapas vanished in 2010 following a five-year run, while Chef Aaron May opened and shuttered two high-profile tapas concepts in quick succession: Sol y Sombra and Iruña.
They were all fine restaurants. So what gives? Are Valley diners simply predisposed against fried baby squid, snacky stuffed olives and other Spanish small-plate delicacies? Restaurateurs M. Corey Chan and Ray Sinelli are betting otherwise. Located on the suddenly hot 12th Street drag in Central Phoenix, CoR – a Brangelina-style portmanteau of the owners’ names – is the first self-identified tapas eatery to hit the scene since Chef Joseph Gutierrez’s Tapas Papas Frita opened in 2010. And it’s a welcome addition to that depleted dining sector – albeit one that leaves you pining for something más.
Tapas are designed for sharing with company, and CoR – in turn – seems designed for scene-minded diners. Tucked in a circa-1949 storefront painted electric purple, the Spanish restaurant is modern and dimly lit – no hanging hamhocks! – with exposed wood beams, concrete countertops and polished floors. The hi-top community table with its funky modern chandelier is tailor-made for group girlfriend-bonding, while couples enjoy small talk and sangria at smaller half-booths along the back wall.
As Lola’s demise demonstrated, tapas can be a hard sell for the average diner – particularly if the micro-dishes are priced like typical full-size entrees. Alas, CoR’s menu of $8-$18 plates will probably not win fans among the budget-conscious, but the relaxed, attentive service is spot-on and the place is a sensual bonanza – from the first look at paella laid out on a pretty slate tile to the silky mouthfeel of plump shrimp soaked in garlic butter.
The bruschetta board ($12) is a natural starting point. Deconstructed into separate dip trays and served alongside crisp baguette slices, the four-pack of garlicky tomatoes, olive chunks, red pepper hummus and minced portobellos with blue cheese is refreshing and solid. Executive Chef Michael De Filippis and Chef Samantha Wong encourage guests to mingle (the toppings), turning the staid tomato mixture into a zesty feta-spiked Mediterranean tapenade when mixed with tart Kalamata olives.
CoR offers multiple versions of simple seafood dishes, which can be confusing to navigate, but is worthwhile. Blackened scallops tease the tongue with mouth-searing spices tamed by cooling fruit salsa, while the alternate seared version ($17 each) has a sanguine kick from crumbled bacon. The latter is a better choice for sensitive stomachs, but the crisp crust of the spicy scallops contrasts with the tartness of the pineapple and the zing of fresh cilantro for a dish that’s more complex and appealing.
The battle between gambas al ajillo and gambas y chorizo ($15 each) is an easier call. Robust, tender sausage slices and a hefty dose of garlic make the chorizo dish a winner; the ajillo, on the other hand, is a glorified shrimp scampi. The plump crustaceans also make an appearance in De Filippis’ paella ($18), a creative take on the Valencian rice dish that’s sadly light on saffron but well-stocked with mussels and some of the best-prepared calamari I’ve encountered. The tenderness of the tiny squid tentacles, combined with the decadence of oily garlic-onion sofrito, lured my dining companions into clearing our slate.
Proving that sometimes the simplest dishes are the best, CoR’s caprese ($9) is bright and refreshing, especially when paired with house white sangria ($8 a glass) that smacks of ripe summer peaches. Eggplant and thick chunks of sweet butternut squash contrast with pungent blue cheese and tangy balsamic for a spinach and roasted vegetable salad ($10) that oozes winter comforts, while salty mozzarella and crispy fried fingerlings eliminate the need for heavy seasoning in patatas fritas ($9). Dates – normally a throwaway appetizer with rubbery bacon and cold cheese – get a makeover with gooey melted blue cheese and thick slices of dry serrano ham that resemble salt-cured pork belly ($14). Granted, there are only four per order, but the diametrically opposing salty-sweet dynamic of fruit and meat makes the last bite worth fighting for.
Despite small servings, osso bucco ($16) and albondigas ($13) went partially uneaten. The appeal of osso bucco resides in its tenderness – the tough source cut, traditionally veal shank, becomes velvety after lengthy braising. CoR’s version employs lamb, lending a slightly gamey flavor to the dish. Unfortunately, it also seems impervious to braising, requiring a vigorous jaw workout. A similar problem plagues housemade meatballs, a bone-dry pork and beef medley salvaged only by extra helpings of sauce. Using milk-soaked bread in lieu of crumbs or choosing fattier meats might result in a more palatable dish.
Pulled pork, on the other hand, is delectably moist, with a sweet bourbon barbecue sauce that’s rib-sticking good ($11). It’s an odd dish for a Spanish tapas joint, but the creaminess of the accompanying potato purée and the tenderness of the pork made it a toothsome nod to Southern cuisine. White wine reduction and a heavy sear make thighs the best cut of the bird in CoR’s juicy chicken Veracruz ($12), and mini crab cakes offered on special are moist and sweet with a heavy seafood flavor ($14).
De Filippis’ mother was a pastry chef, a legacy that comes through in his dessert execution. Expectedly small, the morsels of chocolate torte in CoR’s triple delight ($10) are thick and fudgy, and the one-bite crème brûlée is packed with vanilla bean flavor. The standout of the trio is a bread pudding that’s crisp on the outside and delightfully gooey within. According to the staff, multiple customers – including one of my dinner partners – have requested full servings of just the pudding. Make it happen, people.
Overall, CoR hits most of its marks as a tapas joint – few surprises, few complaints. The biggest challenge will be tapping that elusive population of diners willing to overlook the price-point; a task so baffling to Iruña owner May that he ultimately shuttered the restaurant in favor of a brewery concept. CoR’s dishes aren’t as complex or well-spiced as May’s tapas, but the mildness and accessibility of the food might have broader appeal. And let’s face it – we’re all paupers in tapas-deprived Phoenix. If you have a better option for delectable ham-stuffed dates, we’d be happy to hear it.
CoR Tapas & Wine
Address: 4500 N. 12th St., Phoenix, 602-264-8471, cortapas.com
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tu-Th, 5-11 p.m. F-Sa, closed Su-M
Highlights: Bruschetta board ($12); spicy scallops ($17 each); gambas y chorizo ($15); paella ($18); spinach and roasted vegetable salad ($10); patatas fritas ($9); dates ($14); pork ($11); chicken Veracruz ($12); triple delight ($10)
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