"Corazón y miel," your waitress wants it to be known, is the signature dish of Corazón y Miel. Corazón y miel, hearts and honey, is a small bowl of warm, seared chicken hearts in a sweet, honeyed vinaigrette, tossed with a few slivers of onion, like a chicken heart escabeche. The grayish hearts look a little gnarly, organy, probably more than you want to be dealing with before your third margarita.
The bowl travels around the table twice. Someone finally spears a heart. She chases it with a shot of tequila. She spears another. She corrals the bowl for herself. Like the restaurant, a dim tuck 'n' roll gastropub in the working-class suburb of Bell, the hearts are an unlikely source of deliciousness. The hearts have won again.
Corazón y Miel, the restaurant, is an intimate former cocktail lounge restored into gleaming, roaring life. The chef is Eduardo Ruiz, who comes from the head-to-tail wonderland of Animal up on Fairfax Avenue.
The bar is the project of Christian Pulido, an ex-UCLA water polo dude obsessed with Mexico City cocktails. You can get a margarita, but there are also excellent versions of the chile-spiked beer called michelada and the Ron Bull, a sweetened fizz of lime juice, beer and light rum that is ubiquitous in Mexico but fairly unknown here.
The imaginative craft cocktails, which may include Mexican tamarind candy and housemade horchata in addition to the usual sorts of bitters and amari, are as well-made as they are at the fancy uptown bars — try the summery La Nanula — but at $8 a pop are priced for the Eastside. There is also a proper sangrita, tomato juice amped up with fruit juice and chiles, designed to be sipped alongside shots of tequila or mezcal, a Mexican standard I've been looking for in Los Angeles bars for years.
It seems right that the restaurant is in Bell, a quick 10-minute drive from downtown, rather than among the crowded avenues of Echo Park or downtown's Old Bank District. Corazón y Miel attracts its share of Silver Lake revelers, but it is settled in its Eastside home.
What Ruiz is doing here is pretty much the Latino equivalent of restaurants like Spice Table, Lukshon, Chego, or Bar Ama, where chefs classically trained in the European tradition focus their hard-won technique on the cuisines that they grew up eating. It's the vital edge of Los Angeles cooking at the moment.
So instead of concentrating on second-rate bistro dishes, or worse yet, sliders, Ruiz transforms the antojito, the Mexican bar snack, and there isn't a tortilla in the house: seared slices of carnitas terrine with cubes of Coca-Cola gelée; freshly fried potato chips served with an oniony, battleship-gray dip made with crema and charred scallions; a tart mixed-seafood ceviche, distinctly not made with octopus from a can, sprinkled with tar-black burnt peanuts.
Fried chicken feet become a kind of Buffalo chicken wing with toes, glazed with chile and served with both celery sticks and blue cheese dressing, and instead of guacamole, there are flash-fried avocado wedges crusted with bread crumbs and coconut, swamped with a sweet habanero-laced mango chutney. (The avocado also appears on the dessert menu.)
Dulce de Puerco is basically a Mexicanized version of A.O.C.'s bacon-wrapped dates, and the knots of bacon and roasted jalapeños served on a bed of mayonnaisey corn salad is an entire corner's worth of Eastside street food on a single plate, street dogs without the franks. Cueritos, pickled pigskin, may be served everywhere in Los Angeles you find great carnitas, but I've never run across a version quite as appealing as Ruiz's, simmered to a suave meltiness, tossed with citrus, chile and herbs, and served with a heap of crunchy chicharrones to scoop it up with; pigskin served two ways.
Are there burgers? Sure — drippy monsters sluiced with roasted chiles and whipped cotija, or piled with bacon and grilled panela cheese. Sometimes there are even lamb burgers to go with your Ron Bull.
But as a Salvadoran guy, Ruiz is comfortable transforming a simple pan con chompipe, a turkey sandwich, into a kind of edible monument to his childhood: a long-cooked 2-pound turkey leg, buried in a spicy, lightly pickled cabbage curtido, smothered in a cooked tomato sauce and jammed into a roll that clings to it like a Speedo on a fat man — a sandwich you can imagine Bluto taking on a picnic with Olive Oyl.
The rice in his arroz con pollo, fortified with chorizo and garbanzo beans, kind of splits the difference between the Caribbean and Spain; the pulpy-red hanger steak may have been marinated in mezcal but is smeared with a quantity of garlicky parsley paste that places its provenance squarely in Buenos Aires, and maybe the best thing about it is the way that the pungent chimichurri soaks into the hand-cut fries.
If you're feeling like dessert, it can be hard to choose between the dense chocolate cake served with extra-smoky chipotle custard and the puff pastry-wrapped fried banana parcels with cinnamon. To be safe, you should probably try both.
6626 Atlantic Ave., Bell, (323) 560-1776, http://www.corazonymiel.com Prices: Antojitos, $3-$10; large plates, $7-$17; desserts, $5-$6. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 5-10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; bar open late Thursdays to Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking in rear. Recommended dishes: Pigskin salad; jalapeño y tocino; bistec arrachera; "boca negra."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times