Situated in a restored historic house on 16th Street near Barrio Cafe, Casa Corazon captures all of the elements of a burgeoning, about-to-be-an-institution kind of joint. It’s located in an adorably renovated home with loads of exposed wood, including a well-crafted barrel ceiling, so perfectly preserved and presented that I’m willing to bet it is a re-creation. Not that it matters, really, because eating at Casa Corazon is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the palate.
Like many charming historic spots, the entrance feels a bit wonky. In this case, going in the side entrance is like sneaking backstage, since you walk in right next to the cooking line, which is fine with me. If a place doesn’t mind you peeking at the chef, it means they don’t have anything to hide about their suppliers and skills. And for the nascent germophobe in my brain, there is a dedication to cleanliness (I dare you to find a speck of dust in the entire place).
This backstage entrance also drops you in front of an impressive salsa station. Please indulge – on my first few visits, I really thought this was a no-no. It isn’t, so load up on all the flavors. I loved the pineapple salsa – a dark green mix that is herbaceous, sweet and complex. The rest were resplendent. I found all the green flavors to be super tasty. I found the red salsas to be hot. Hopefully, this information will save your tongue and your time.
After you fill several tiny plastic cups with salsa, you’ll be led to your table. Enjoy the gorgeous views – someone spent significant time and energy here. Plaster is gone from most of the walls, leaving exposed brick. Where it is left, it has become canvas for gorgeous paintings, mostly botanicals of several kinds of desert agave, as well as a stunning vaquero.
At the end of the building, to the left, is a tiny bar, fully bedecked with loads of liquor and four barstools. The service, while charming, felt slightly understaffed. While one server should be able to handle the eight tables in the dining room, they are also responsible for bartending duties. On one visit, this created long waits while two big parties had complex drink orders filled. Having grabbed salsa, I was prepared. The hot basket of uber-fresh red, white and blue tortilla chips is delivered quickly enough to placate most.
Thick, hearty chips with excellent salsa don’t need any extras, but I am in love with their Queso Fundido ($12), a large, hot dish loaded with melted cheese, fresh chopped herbs and super-spicy chorizo that is dippingly decadent. Clearly, this is a real-deal cheese sauce, since it doesn’t solidify into one solid mass when it’s no longer piping hot (this is a good thing).
Next we jumped right into the tacos. I loved the Carne Asada ($4.50); a generous amount of well-cooked asada arrives, perched on freshly made tortillas. I also enjoyed the Fish ($4.00), battered and served with crema and cabbage – a super-crunchy treat that had the perfect amount of salt and freshly squeezed lime juice, allowing the whole thing to sing.
You’ll be asked if you want rice and beans. Say yes. A long, rectangle-shaped dish appears, with one half covered in the most savory rice you can imagine. Cooked in a bit of fat and loads of fresh stock, it’s the faintest shade of beige, and so smooth and savory you’ll eat every single forkful. The other side is stocked with superb black beans topped with queso fresco and crema – so delicious and toothsome we used the second basket of chips to scoop these up with quickness. I seldom indulge rice and beans (typically a waste of carbs), but do not skip them here. They are special enough to be enjoyed on their own.
The Enchiladas Corazon were something special ($16). Served three to a dish, do try all three kinds – beef, chicken and cheese. Served in slightly puffy fresh corn tortillas, these were magic. I have been roped into making enchiladas before – the long-simmered sauce, the tortillas lightly fried and dipped into enchilada sauce and then rolled with ingredients – but these were different. The tortillas were so soft and light, they melted into nothingness when consumed. The sauce has the perfect amount of kick, and they are all topped with just enough melty cheese to feel like an indulgent treat.
As wonderful as the beef and chicken were (well cooked, well flavored, well prepared), the cheese enchilada was perfectly crafted, with an incredible balance of flavors. The right acidic hit from the sauce, the perfect chile punch (order it Christmas style, with both red and green sauces) and the pillowy tortilla that cradles the cheese – it was love at first, and every, bite. These are like the sophisticated enchilada cousins to your favorite dive’s version, back from a world tour and showing off. The aforementioned rice and beans come alongside, and I’m okay with their presence on a second plate. There’s more to enjoy, and it allows the true flavor of each dish to be experienced unadulterated, as the chef intended.
The Chiles En Nogada ($18) are pure poetry. Two chiles are stuffed with meat and dried fruits, swimming in creamy sauce, and topped with rather large macerated currants. Yes, you heard me. The slight tang of the currants is a great foil to the creaminess of the sauce, and as you spear them, they release their stunning colored juices into the perfect white of the sauce. It’s like art, and the taste is something special. A crunch of walnuts and ground beef provides both texture and umami flavors, rounding out the sweetness of the fruit and the goat cheese in the sauce. I loved this dish. And we used the third basket of chips to ensure none of this lovely sauce went to waste.
Their Mole ($19) is perfect. The well-cooked chicken is hidden under ladles of near-black mole. A dusting of sesame seeds covers the sauce. Complex and subtle, this mole is spicy, with a hint of sweet, tart and savory. We did a lot of thinking about the dish, wondering how many ingredients might be loaded inside (in some traditional mole recipes, there could be 100 components) and how many days someone’s Nana stood over an open flame, ensuring it was perfect (could be a week, depending on recipe and region). I could see her in my mind, stirring this silky mole.
Flavors this well developed don’t happen overnight. A lifetime goes into perfecting dishes like this, so complex and luscious. Sometimes with a sauce this good you’ll ignore the protein, although that was not the case here. Large hunks of tender and juicy chicken withstood the sauce. We used forkfuls of the chicken to swirl more and more mole into each bite. Finally, the remnants from our basket of chips were used to scoop up the last bits of sauce.
Casa Corazon is gorgeous inside, and the food crafted within these walls is equally tasty and magnificent. Being here felt like sitting at a famous place, right before it becomes famous. Rightly so: the staff is adorable and charming, and they do not hesitate to keep bringing more freshly made chips, which is good. They could probably use a bartender, so that the wait isn’t as long. A trifle, really, since Casa Corazon is one of those places – you inherently know good food takes time and energy – that is meant to slow you down, to immerse and engage all of your senses. So slow down, find your salsa bliss; enjoy the architecture, art and bountiful chips. Before it’s nearly impossible to get a table.
2637 N. 16th Street, Phoenix
Open 7 days a week, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.