Photography by Rob Ballard
Behold the stealth brilliance of this Oaxacan-Yucatecan fine dining restaurant in CenPho.
Over a splendid lunch at Casa Corazon, a lovely Mexican restaurant on 16th Street just south of Thomas Road, my friend and I find ourselves praising everything we put in our mouths: “This margarita is perfect,” I say. “Fresh-tasting and perfectly balanced.”
“I love this creamy jalapeño salsa,” my pal retorts, referring to one of nine freshly made salsas drawn from a neatly kept cart near the restaurant’s entrance. We enjoy heaping scoops of complimentary refried bean dip, boosted with vinegar-tangy chorizo and bright chile de árbol, onto crisp multicolored corn chips, knowing we’re ruining our appetites but incapable of exerting the slightest self-control.
We go on in this effusive manner – ooh-ing here and mmm-ing there – for the better part of the meal until my friend finally muses, “Wonder how Silvana [Salcido Esparza of nearby Barrio Café] feels about such close competition.” It’s an astute question, but I know Silvana, a lover of community and a passionate proponent of all things Mexican, so I’m pretty sure her JFK-like response would be, “Oye, cabron, a rising tide lifts all boats.”
And she would be right. With its Southern Mexico-inflected menu and attention to detail, Casa Corazon makes 16th Street, already a go-to for great Mexican food, an even more alluring dining destination. Before opening the restaurant in spring of 2018, owner Javier Verdugo gutted and refurbished the cottage that houses the restaurant, adding vaulted ceilings, paned windows, elegantly tiled floors and corner frescos featuring the various agave plants used for Mexican spirits. The look is polished and elevated, a welcome step away from the serape/sombrero tropes.
After heroic chips-and-salsa eating and aguas frescas slurping (excellent tamarindo and wondrously tart jamaica, by the way), my friend and I launch into generously portioned and equally filling appetizers: a blue enamel bowl filled with plump, buttery kernels of street corn, creamy with aioli and queso fresco and jacked up with spices. A plate of aguachile (translation: chile water), ceviche’s kick-ass cousin, reveals a wheel-like composition of buttery avocado wedges and butterflied shrimp, marinated and set afloat in velvety, serrano-spiked citrus juice. Finished with fresh raw onions, pickled onions and an extra sprinkle of powdered chile, it’s a juicy jolt of sweetness, tang and heat – if a little over-salted.
Corazon’s ceviche is far less spicy, but no less appealing. Served in a big goblet brimming with shrimp, diced cucumber, red onion and cilantro, everything is suspended in a light Clamato tomato broth sparked with bottled Mexican hot sauce. Draped with fat hunks of avocado and sided with packaged Saltines, it’s a cool, refreshing classic. Meanwhile, I could eat Corazon’s chunky guacamole, studded with tiny bits of chile, onion, tomato and cilantro, every day – perfect texture, perfect zing of lime, salt and mild chile heat.
From the taco section, there’s a fine fish taco, lightly breaded, fried and tucked into a sturdy but pliant house-made corn tortilla dabbed with a swirl of chipotle aioli and strewn with a dainty mince of red and green cabbage. Also excellent: tacos de canasta al vapor, steamed tacos traditionally sold by Mexican street vendors from baskets (canastas). At Corazon, corn tortillas are dipped in smoky red chile sauce, stuffed with meltingly tender beef and a little cheese, then steamed until the chile-stained tortillas are moist and droopy. Hard to eat with your hands, but altogether heavenly.
The lunch menu offers more of the straightforward Mexican food we’re used to seeing – chimichangas, burritos, taquitos, et al – mixed and matched at bargain prices. Light, puffy gorditas (think Hot Pockets but 100 times better) come stuffed with your choice of filling, maybe arrachera (grilled skirt steak), green chile pork, cochinita pibil, chicken tinga or swoon-worthy chicharrón – crispy, crackly nubbins of smoky pork rind, fatty and agreeably chewy at their centers.
Enchiladas might be enrobed in red chile, green chile or Corazon’s signature, utterly addictive roasted-beet sauce, which lends an irresistible sweet note to the sauce’s subtle heat. It’s especially good with a fine dining drizzle of crema.
Yucatecan cochinita pibil is traditionally a whole suckling pig marinated with bitter oranges and achiote (ground tree seeds that lend nutty, peppery notes), wrapped in banana leaves and buried in a pit. Here in the States, cochinita pibil typically translates to lime- and achiote-marinated pork butt, slow-roasted in the oven, which is still pretty damned good. Corazon goes the extra mile, roasting the pork in banana leaves, yielding juicy ropes of shredded burnt orange meat, fragrant with cinnamon and notes of nutmeg. Eaten with a spritz of fresh lime and pickled red onion, it’s an earthy, satisfying dish served with thick black beans and the best pea- and corn-studded Mexican white rice I’ve had in ages.
It’s a close call, but I may be even fonder of Corazon’s steak Mexicano, a beefy, robustly seasoned flat iron dripping with juices. Served on a tart, slippery cactus pad (charred and infinitely tastier than what you’re probably imagining), the steak gets a sweet, oniony topper of mango salsa and accompaniments of arroz blanco, black beans and tortillas for mopping everything up.
My friend and I agree that we’ve both had better chicken mole. This glossy, deep brown version, sprinkled with sesame seeds, is luxurious, to be sure, but too chocolatey for our taste. And oddly, I’m a wee bit disappointed in the lobster quesadilla, oozing with stringy Oaxacan cheese, which I fully expected to love. It’s good, just not spectacular.
And here’s another revelation. Founding chef Alex Ortiz has moved on, leaving Elena Ramirez, his second in command, to take his place. From what I’ve seen and tasted, she’s doing a fantastic job. I can’t wait to further explore the menu and settle in some afternoon over happy hour. You could say Casa Corazon has won my whole heart.
Contact: 2637 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 602-334-1917, casacorazonrestaurant.com
Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Highlights: Guacamole ($8); ceviche ($12); aguachile ($18); tacos de canasta al vapor ($4); fish taco ($4.50); gorditas ($3); cochinita pibil ($16); steak Mexicano ($21)