There are few dishes more quintessentially Mexican than chiles en nogada, a stuffed poblano chile bulging with a sweet-savory picadillo hash of ground beef, diced fruit and nuts, and smothered in a velvety walnut cream sauce. The finishing touch typically involves jewel-red pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley. A plate of chiles en nogada, in other words, is about as subtle as a Fabergé egg.
The dish, rooted in Mexican Independence and central Mexican Pueblan cuisine, is a culinary homage to the tricolor Mexican flag. Its baroque composition means it’s not the sort of fast street food you’ll find at your local neighborhood taqueria. Rather, this delicacy is generally reserved for special occasions and fine dining. If you see it on a restaurant menu, you can almost always take it as a good sign that you’ve stumbled onto a restaurant with a reverence for the classics, and a healthy dose of culinary ambition.
Casa Corazón, a Mexican restaurant that opened about three months ago on 16th Street, has both of these in spades.
If 16th Street is anywhere on your regular city route, Casa Corazón has probably already caught your eye. The small, standalone restaurant is situated in a Tudor-style historic home that’s been painted a vivid red-orange. Owner Javier Verdugo, who has a background in event planning and catering, has an eye for design, as evidenced by the restaurant’s small, brightly lit patio and striking signage: a gleaming metallic heart bursting into flames.
Inside, there’s an elegantly weathered quality to the modest-size dining room, bespoke with exposed brick, wood ceilings, and artful Mexican motifs, including a mural of Mexican film legend Pedro Armendáriz. The low, steady thrum of old-fashioned trio music plays softly, adding to the feeling that you’ve wandered into a genteel Mexican cafe, circa 1947.
A bowl of tortilla chips is deposited on your table — the strips are notably hot, crisp, and fresh. Someone, cheerful and amenable, encourages you to help yourself to the salsa bar. Even if you’re not inclined to get excited over the quotidian pleasure of complimentary chips and salsa, it’s worth getting excited over this salsa bar. The range of house-made salsas is impressive. You shouldn’t skip out on the lightly sweet pineapple salsa, or the impossibly creamy and flavorful serrano salsa, which seems to be a staff favorite.
There’s a full bar near the front of the restaurant, and apart from the usual list of agave-based Mexican cocktails, you’ll find a handful of unique libations.
Boozy agua frescas? They’re here, along with unique nonalcoholic concoctions like Casa Corazón’s wonderful agua mazapan. Verdugo, taking inspiration from the iconic De La Rosa Mazapan candy, has taken the frothy, milky base of horchata and blended it with the popular peanut confection. It’s delightfully cool, nutty, and sweet.
Verdugo, a native of Sonora, has worked closely with chef Alex Ortiz and his culinary team to devise the restaurant’s eclectic menu of Mexican staples. Starters include norteño standards like aguachile, made here with butterflied shrimp cured in a bright, spicy serrano-citrus blend. There’s nothing exceptional about this rendition, though, and you’re probably better off sticking to your favorite marisqueria version. The house street corn starter, a hodgepodge of chewy corn coated in a cheesy house aioli, is equally forgettable.
What makes Casa Corazón unforgettable is its first-rate menu of classic central and southern Mexican dishes. Which brings us back to the culinary spectacle that is a good chiles en nogada. With the exception of a few particulars — pomegranate seeds have been swapped out for cranberries, and you can substitute plump shrimp in place of ground beef — there’s nothing very unorthodox about this version.
Still, the chiles en nogada at Casa Corazón is delicious. Stuffed with diced jicama, apple, and nuts, and drowned in an extravagantly creamy walnut sauce flecked artfully with shredded purple cabbage, the dish sets off the kind of gustatory alarm bells that linger in your sense memory for days.
Cochinita pibil is another highlight, the slow-roasted pork butt wrapped in a banana leaf and dripping with a mellow citrus sweetness. For slightly more robust flavor, order Azteca Tinga, a shredded chicken dish featuring a wonderful tomato-chipotle sauce. And how is the mole poblano? It’s dark and smooth, with a gorgeously nutty, complex profile.
One of the most curious dishes you’ll find at Casa Corazón are the Corazón Enchiladas. Made with your choice of beef, chicken, or melted Oaxaca cheese — the chicken variety is especially flavorful — they’re slicked in a pink-red beet chile sauce. The sauce is smooth, earthy, with the kind of creamy richness and coloration you might associate with a pasta vodka sauce. They are unforgettably good.
The meatiest thing on the menu, of course, is the flat-iron Steak Mexicano. This steak is thick and well-cooked, bearing a nice crust. It’s draped over a grilled nopal paddle and served with a chunky, sweet-tangy nopal-mango salad. Simple and hearty, the presentation is at once rustic and elegant.
If you’re in the mood for cheesier fare, try the decadent lobster quesadilla. The sweet, tender hunks of lobster are deliciously encased in a thick, buttery mantle of Oaxaca cheese.
You probably won’t come for the tacos, but it’s worth noting that Casa Corazón offers a small but satisfying menu. The chicken tacos especially deliver supple, well-seasoned meat.
House-made gorditas, more delicate than the overly thick store-bought variety, are equally satisfying. You can pick from a wide range of guisados, but for my money, the green chile pork is a clear winner. The succulent, fatty pork is skillfully paired with a bright and spicy tomatillo sauce.
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For dessert, there are Mexican-style buñuelos spackled with cinnamon and sugar, and shaped roughly into the figure of a heart. If you’ve never had the pleasure of eating a freshly fried buñuelo, this is a good place to start. The deep-fried fritters are a little chewy and airy, with the timeless appeal of something that has been made with more regard for flavor than nutritional value.
“Corazón” means heart in Spanish. It’s a fitting name for a restaurant like this one, where a spoonful often produces the kind of endorphin rush associated with the first heart-pounding sparks of love.
2637 North 16th Street
Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Chiles en nogada $16
Cochinita pibil $15
Steak Mexicano $19
Buñuelos Corazón $8