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El Corazon's Got Your Chips and Salsa

New name, same salsa game.
Catherine Downes

It's not a stretch to compare our desire for chips and salsa to an addict's lust for his drug of choice. We know they do us no good, and yet we pine. They seduce us with their golden sheen, glistening in the dim lighting of our favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. We get lost in the bubbles, ridges and curls set in each chip after a quick bath in shimmering hot oil. The warmth that emanates from the paper-lined basket comforts us, and in that cozy state we thoughtlessly indulge.

It's a deeply rooted addiction, and we can only blame ourselves. Restaurants that try to abandon chips and salsa encounter twitchy customers demanding their fix. Peak and Elm, a Tex-Mex restaurant in East Dallas, offered lightly pickled vegetables as an alternative to the salsa-drenched tortilla chip — and then quickly abandoned the practice. Abram Salum wanted to offer modern Mexican cuisine at his restaurant Komali, but his Highland Park customers didn't care. There are fajitas on the menu, so there must be salsa and chips, they reasoned. Anything less and everyone would go to On The Border instead.

Or they could head to El Corazon de Tejas, whose Oak Cliff address has turned out processed cheese-stuffed tortillas since 1955. The restaurant operated as an El Chico until 1981, when employees took over and rebranded it Tejano, which became a neighborhood fixture. But despite the loyal customers, current owners John and Susan Cuellar, with their partner and cousin Gilbert Cuellar, noticed that the restaurants that had opened nearby in recent years were pulling in more and more customers. They broke out the paint cans and changed the name again.

Walk though the doors of the new El Corazon and beachy pink walls surround an open bar and dining area where a mural of a young señorita engulfs an entire wall. The ceilings are high, so her presence is looming, and a chandelier waits to illuminate your every misstep from above. Don't worry too much, though. The tables are clad in paper. The white canvas will soak up everything that doesn't make it all the way home.

In the world of chips and salsa, the king of all dribblers, El Corazon gets off on the right foot. Blackened flecks of chile skin become a new ingredient, lending subtle smoky flavors to a salsa that's just hot enough. The chips are pulled from a bag, but they provide the requisite salt and crunch, and they arrive warm and pleasantly grease-free. If you've got a cold beer in your hand, you'll be halfway through your first basket before you pick up your menu.

If you've come with the intent of drinking, beer is your best bet unless you've got a penchant for liquid Sweet Tarts. The margarita has taken a step up since the Tejano days, when it arrived a shade of green more suited for St. Patrick's Day schwag. It was a small step, though, and a hard draw on your straw presents high-fructose corn syrup as much as it does booze. It's the same drink you've had at countless Tex-Mex restaurants, whether on the rocks or swirled by machine into a frozen, sugary vortex.

Margaritas that taste of fresh-squeezed lime juice and palatable tequila make lasting impressions. They stand out against the yellowy-green sea of bad drinks served at most salsa-bound restaurants. Despite the Cuellars' attempt to catch up with a neighborhood that now claims some of the city's very best restaurants, the margaritas here miss the fiesta. In fact, little at El Corazon transcends typical Tex-Mex.

Certainly the shrimp cocktail doesn't. Tiny shellfish swim with avocado in a sea of citrusy tomato sauce, and while the flavors are fresh and bright, the shrimp are so small they're overwhelmed. The queso flameado won't take you anywhere new, either. The tanker truck of cheese arrives without pyrotechnics and quickly cools into a block of solidified milk fat. Skip this appetizer entirely — there's plenty of cheese elsewhere on the menu.

Skip the chile relleno, too. It's filled with dry ground beef and breaded with cornmeal that sloughs off as soon as you dig in. The mole enchiladas present sweetness first but then little else — there's no depth of flavor, no character and no complexity in what should be one of the most robust sauces on the menu.

The nachos are better, though you've had the same rendition countless times before. Bring back-up, too: What the menu describes as "small" is enough to feed three, and considering the lack of restraint with basket number two, you're surely growing tired with the tortilla chip genre. Dribble a little salsa on the plate and dig in. And try not to wonder what makes those beans delicious.

It's not just bacon, of course. Gilbert Cuellar says rendered bacon fat is stirred in as well. It's a rich and decadent puree, loaded with bits of partially squashed beans that lend some texture to what can often eat like paste. These are beans you'd want to eat daily if you didn't know why they tasted so good. And there are other dishes that rise above the flames of El Corazon's tattoo.

If you've come and the restaurant is packed with customers, order the steak fajitas. When the grill in the kitchen is loaded with meat, the dripping juices pop and flare, belching smoke that rivals a grill fired with charcoal. The rich, smoky flavor combined with the marinade yields meat that is intensely beefy and forgivingly tender. Order the same dish when business is slow and your meat will be lifeless, though. You'll wish you'd caved and ordered basket No. 3.

Also look for the tacos norteños, which come stuffed with chicken or beef, beans and enough cheese that each bite pulls strings like delivery pizza. The tacos are folded and griddled on their side like small but chubby quesadillas. They shouldn't taste as good as they do.

Still, other then the tortillas, which are made fresh to order (corn over flour; they're considerably better), much of the remaining menu recedes into the heavy, cheese-laden world of Tex-Meh. The enchiladas, flautas and tacos are passable — as long as you haven't engaged in several baskets' worth of snacking — but they're no better than the versions countless other restaurants around town have already served you. The ones you've been using to stain your shirts with errant drops of salsa ... hey, are you even listening?

You're still eating those chips, aren't you?


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