Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that practically every small town in America would one day have an espresso bar. You could barely get a decent cup of coffee in New York City, let alone the wilds of Iowa. And what about sushi? In the '90s it was still vaguely exotic outside of major cities; today you can get it at Walgreens.
It's interesting to think about what might come next — what perk of urban affluence will slowly creep its way to ubiquity? Could it be that 20 years from now, craft cocktails will be as common as cappuccino and California rolls?
Leading the fight to bring mixology to an ever-widening audience in L.A. is Corazon y Miel, the new Bell restaurant that's expanding the geography of cocktails-with–egg whites, as well as the modern, internationally influenced gastropub.
It's exciting for people who care about food to see ambitious restaurants opening in a place like Bell, a blue-collar, mainly Latino city. Only 10 minutes from downtown, Bell feels worlds away; to outsiders, it's chiefly famous for the corruption scandal that brought down nearly its entire municipal government. While there's plenty of fantastic food to be had in Bell (La Casita Mexicana, one of L.A.'s most beloved Mexican restaurants, is practically right around the corner from Corazon y Miel), there's not a whole lot of gussied-up bar snacks or things garnished with candied citrus zest.
Rather than storm into Bell with fancy food and a hipster attitude, Corazon y Miel is looking to fit into the neighborhood, with dishes that are mainly Latin-influenced at an incredibly reasonable price point. Some of that food is delightful, and some of it could use some work. But there's no doubt that the restaurant's heart is in the right place.
Corazon y Miel (which translates to “hearts and honey”) is a project of Travis Hoffacker and Robin Chopra, along with chef Eduardo Ruiz, who worked at Animal for a couple of years as a tournant, or the cook who makes the rounds in the kitchen, helping out on various stations as needed. Ruiz's new restaurant is a fairly tiny operation: It used to be a bar and it still feels like one, with tables along one wall and the bar taking up most of the other wall in the long, narrow, brick-walled room. A large, flat-screen television hangs over the bar, playing sports. It's a room that begs for revelers, drinking up a storm.
If those revelers were to show up, there would be plenty to drink. The bar is manned by Christian Pulido, and there's something for everyone on this drinks list: horchata with vodka, Kahlua and amaretto; sticky-sweet rum coconut concoctions, garnished with a Popsicle; odd margaritas made with vodka and spruced up with candied tamarind; a couple of fantastic pisco cocktails with the requisite of-the-moment bitter finish. Flavored shots are available in groups of three for $8. There are traditional sangrita and tequila combos, as well as micheladas and margaritas. There's wine as well, but you don't want it.
You certainly can see Animal's influence on the food menu, mainly in its worship of fatty meats: chicken hearts (the restaurant's namesake dish), pig skin two ways, chicken feet, many things wrapped in bacon. The cultural influences are mainly Mexican but also Californian and Latin American. Like much of L.A.'s best food, this is cuisine that refuses to be shunted into any particular box.
What you won't find are tacos, or really any other Mexican standby. Guacamole? Nope — instead there's a quartered fried avocado, crusted in coconut and served with a mango chutney. There's a dish that pays homage to all manner of Mexican street treats, a bacon-wrapped, chorizo- and cheese–stuffed jalapeño, served over a bed of mayo-slicked corn, which is advertised as “elote salad.”
Continuing with the bacon-wrapped theme, dates get the porcine robe as well. It's a familiar dish, prepared here with the deep sweetness of the date offset by whipped cotija cheese rather than the classic blue. In the center, an almond crunches, giving the mouthful depth and nutty weight.
Like any decent gastropub, Corazon serves a couple of huge, unwieldy burgers worth ruining your shirt for. Flank steak is mezcal-marinated and served a tender medium rare. You can also have it in the lomo hash, over a jumble of bell peppers and french fries with a poached egg and an almost undetectable whiff of wasabi.
There's a playfulness at work here, and also a sweet tooth evident even in many of the savory dishes. Sometimes it works, but oftentimes it overwhelms. The Coca-Cola reduction on the fried pork rillettes tastes like what you'd imagine it might — soda syrup. Is it even a good idea to fry rillettes? The basic deliciousness of the dish exists in the creaminess of the fat; once it's fried, all that fat turns to liquid, leaving an odd, oily but somehow dry slice of shredded meat that has more in common spiritually with Spam than any other rillettes I've had.
Pork belly sopes come glazed in achiote, with a thick smear of banana puree between the pork and the fried masa. It's a lot of richness, with an almost dessert-like amount of sweetness. The voluptuous, tropical sugar of the banana is overpowering and the dish is simply too much: too much fat, too many candy overtones, too heavy-handed.
Cooking missteps are sometimes a problem. The namesake dish, those chicken hearts, are tough. Slight toughness is part of their inherent nature, but I've had plenty of pleasantly bouncy chicken hearts — these were unyielding and tense. The chicken feet, which come coated in a fiery sauce, are meant to be a clever play on buffalo wings, served with blue cheese dipping sauce and celery stalks. But they simply haven't been cooked long enough for the cartilage to break down, and you're left gnawing on knuckles with nothing to gain. These are two dishes that are still a leap of faith for many diners, and my guess is that neither would convert a cautious dabbler.
I wish there were more fish on the menu, in no small part because the one seafood dish is also the restaurant's best: The ceviche, full of shrimp and tender octopus and bright lime, comes topped with a generous smattering of burnt peanuts. The nuts give the whole dish an addictive quality, a smoky crunch that marries the fresh seafood with the fun of bar snacks. It's an example of a familiar dish taken one brilliant step beyond the familiar, and it works beautifully.
Corazon y Miel has much going for it, not least of which is the price. With three people, all of us drinking and eating like pigs, I barely managed to spend $100. It's way harder to complain about the exact texture of those chicken hearts when you consider that they cost $3 — pour me another drink and bring another bowl. For a restaurant with this much creativity and this many fun drinks, Corazon y Miel is quite the bargain.
There's a lot of heart in this operation. I look forward to the day when the actual hearts they cook live up to the spirit in which they're served.
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CORAZON Y MIEL | 2 stars | 6626 Atlantic Ave., Bell | (323) 560-1776 | Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. Bar open late on weekends | Entrees, $7-$16 | Full bar | Reservations accepted | Street and lot parking