Anyone who has lived in Portland long enough to have eaten at Café Uffa has watched 190 State St. put on a number of different changes of clothes over the course of the past decade. French heavyweight Evangeline would follow in 2008 and close just two years later to make way for the more casual, bistro-style Petite Jacqueline. When owners Steve and Michelle Corry moved Petite to 46 Market St. in 2016, the French leanings of Longfellow Square came to an end, giving way to Mexican food in the form of El Corazón in May 2017.
Like many other area restaurants that have opened in the past few years, the lineage of El Corazón’s existence can be traced back to its beginnings as a food truck. And as with examples such as Mami and East Ender — the current iteration of which got its start as Small Axe Truck — there’s enough carry-over and consistency to see the transition through at a high level. The space itself is well-lit, open and airy, providing an unpretentious dose of the atmosphere you might expect to encounter at a Mexican restaurant without bordering on kitsch.
Whereas the quality of food at other truck-to-brick establishments has benefited overall from the metamorphosis, however, the same cannot necessarily be said for El Corazón.
This is most evident in preparations not served truckside, such as a soggy and lackluster chile relleno that tasted of old frying oil and little else. On a separate visit, a bland, overcooked order of Salvadoran bean and cheese pupusas from the specials board shared a similar plight, muddled by a sodden texture and served with the restaurant’s ubiquitous guacamole and Mexican crema combo (along with something called “drunken salsa”) rather the traditional cabbage slaw accompaniment curtido. Not even the tamales appear safe, as my dining partner discovered when biting into her green chile order to encounter a room-temperature log of unmelted cheese surrounded by crumbly, unpleasant masa dough.
Despite encountering a number of missteps across three visits, there are some saving graces to be found here. Any fan of Mexican-style street corn (and who isn’t one?) will be hard-pressed not to love the prep at El Corazon — a marriage of smokey char and vibrant piquancy that punches into overdrive with each satisfyingly salty bite. Though a bit odd in its presentation and noticeable degree of sweetness, a jar of camaron seafood cocktail — generously loaded with shrimp — brims with fiery heat and bright acidity. While tacos range from passable (al pastor) to good (battered fish), the house-special fried green tomato taco is noteworthily unique and begs to be ordered a la carte.
It’s odd to give top menu honors to a hot dog at a restaurant billing itself “Authentic Mexican Cuisine,” but nothing I’ve tasted at El Corazón has been as guilty-pleasure-delicious as the Sonoran hot dog — a carry-over from owner Joseph Urtuzuastegui’s Arizona roots. A bacon-wrapped dog enveloped in beans, guac, mayo and mustard and topped with pico de gallo and crumbled chihuahua cheese, it’s as fun and messy to eat as it is surprisingly cohesive in its smattering of textures and flavors. This is hot dog high art, and the best possible order at happy hour alongside a pleasantly stiff house margarita.
Somewhere between the beginning and end of my hot dog campaign, it dawned on me that El Corazón seems to best hit its stride when stepping outside the constraints of the stereotypes that lead to pigeonholed assumptions of what makes for “authentic” Mexican cuisine. It’s just as evident in the tequila-soaked margarita chicken wings that seemingly don’t belong on the menu, yet do more to please the palate than most of the items mentioned above.
Unfortunately, this does little to change the fact that El Corazón is a mixed-bag overall in a city that desperately lacks great Latin American cuisine.
El Corazón | 190 State St, Portland | Mon 11 am-9 pm; Tue-Thu 11 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat 11 am-11 pm; Sun 10 am-9 pm | www.elcorazonportland.com