OC Review: El Corazon de Costa Mesa

“Two and a half hours.” That’s how long I’m told the wait is running the first time I attempt to dine at El Corazon, the beautiful Mexican restaurant that recently opened on the upper deck of The Triangle in Costa Mesa.

“Do you want to put your name on the list?” the hostess asks, smiling.

It’s almost 8 o’clock. I glance at the beach-style palapas and the fire pits, and I don’t want to leave. The mariachi music tugs me to stay. I feel as if I’ve stumbled onto one of those fancy resorts in Los Cabos or Cancun. Oh, how I want a margarita right now. But 2½ hours? “I’ll try another day.”

The restaurant is owned by the same folks who operate Saddle Ranch Chop House (perhaps best known for its mechanical bulls), which opened its fourth location in conjunction with El Corazon, next door.

El Corazon doesn’t take reservations, so I return a few days later at 5:30, and I’m told the wait for the patio is already more than an hour, but there’s a table available inside. A dozen more people, including three generations of Latinos, already have formed a line behind me. The interior is attractive enough, so I opt for that. With such serious wait times, the food must be amazing, right?

It’s at least 20 minutes after we’re seated that our waitress finally shows up, and she looks disoriented and confused, which turns out to be her normal response to everything. We ask for Cadillac margaritas, and she stares off into space. It’s another 20 minutes before she returns with our drinks. Like animals left alone all day with no water, we savagely start gulping our margaritas. It takes just a second for the flavor to sink in, and our smiles turn to frowns.

Have you ever finished a margarita and set down the glass, only to wait a few minutes and notice that some of the ice has melted, so you take one last desperate sip, hoping to squeeze one more drop of margarita from the ice? Well, that last sip is exactly what the margaritas here taste like, from first sip to last. It’s like this on every visit. It doesn’t matter which tequila I order, or whether I’ve asked for Cadillac or regular.

On one visit, my margarita glass has a big gash in the rim, which instantly snares my lip. The manager apologizes and brings me a free replacement, in a vessel twice the size of the original, made with “a very special tequila,” he says. Sadly, it tastes like all the others, just more of it.

One of the restaurant’s gimmicks is tableside service. They roll a cart to the table and make the guacamole on the spot. The cart is loaded with a dozen ingredients. It’s way too dark for me to notice exactly what goes into my dip, but after great fanfare, it’s ready. It tastes not like guacamole but rather a sweet avocado parfait. We push the guac aside and reroute our chips to the salsas, one red, one green. Supposedly housemade, both taste like they come from jars, with labels reading “extra mild.”

Everything goes downhill from there. We order a trio of ceviches: one with shrimp, one with hamachi and another with sea bass. I reach into one of the bowls and my fork comes back with a raw shrimp, still translucent gray, which I naively transfer to my mouth. The other two ceviches don’t fare much better. Any sort of acid is conspicuously absent. Chilies fail to materialize. I’m feeling sick to my stomach.

The menu frequently mentions various types of chilies or words like “spicy” and “wood-fired grill,” words that hold promise. But they are promises unkept. Everything is bland, like hospital food. There’s a filet of beef that’s supposedly marinated in herbs and garlic but is completely void of flavor, made worse by being somewhat overcooked and dry. I wash it down with a flavorless jumbo margarita.

There’s an appetizer of “spicy tuna tacos” in which thinly shaved jicama stands in for the tortillas, a fun idea that I’ve enjoyed many times over the years. The menu describes the tuna as being “sashimi-style,” so I assume it will be high-quality, served pure and raw, like sashimi. But what arrives is a glistening, pinkish, mousse-like puree of fish – with a flavor not inconsistent with that image.

A pork tamal is a heavy clod of masa buried beneath a thin layer of mole that’s not nearly wet enough to counter the dryness of the tamal. (I’m told this item has already been deleted from the menu.) A sweet corn tamal is better, served at room temperature with green salsa and crema. Enchiladas are big and fat, gringo-style, tasting of little more than those same uninspired red or green salsas.

Carne asada fajitas are a joke. There’s no char, no caramelization, no evidence that anything came into contact with a grill. There’s less evidence anything was ever marinated with anchos and soy, as the menu claims. The fajitas are served with housemade flour tortillas that taste strangely like Chinese bao.

Pineapple is the dominant flavor of the tacos al pastor. The rice is fairly typical, served at room temperature. Refried black beans are as stiff as day-old mud. And “Yucatekan-spiced chicken” suggests that the people of the Yucatan have yet to discover a single spice.

When I inquire about today’s “fresh day-boat catch,” our waiter proudly tells me it’s tilapia, and I think: “Really? Your day-boat fishermen caught tilapia? Where are they fishing?” We order the tilapia, anyway. It tastes unpleasantly fishy.

I could go on and on. Over the course of multiple visits, I’ve sampled almost every item on the menu. And although most dishes are unquestionably beautiful, I can’t find anything that makes me want to return.

I enjoy all kinds of Mexican food: downscale, upscale, old school, new wave, narrow regional specialties and wide swaths of Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex. I don’t know what to call the food here, but it isn’t any of those. The only three things I can say I actually enjoy are the Brussels sprouts, which, although not particularly Mexican, are delicious. And the churros. And the flan. That’s it.

I don’t know what’s going on here, but this is one of the worst restaurants I’ve been to in years. Yes, El Corazon is still very new. And this is undoubtedly one of the hottest restaurants in Orange County at the moment, a phenomenon I can attribute only to the amazing patio design.

But I don’t get the sense this is simply a new restaurant struggling to work out a few kinks. I think the problems run deeper. Saddle Ranch is best known for its mechanical bulls, not its chops. I can only surmise El Corazon is similarly betting on its patio and margaritas. Food seems like a gimmick rather than a priority. And that leaves me scratching my head, because if this place is really just meant to be a drinking hole, where food serves the sole purpose of keeping people from getting too drunk, then why are the margaritas so bad, too?

El Corazon de Costa Mesa

Rating: 0 stars

Where: The Triangle, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa

Hours: Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-midnight; Fridays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sundays, 10 a.m.-midnight.

Don’t miss: The decor

Best place to sit: Patio

About the noise: Loud inside; pleasantly festive outside.

Cost: Appetizers, $3.75-$14.75; main courses, $8.75-$19.75; desserts, $4.75-$9.75. Valet parking, $4.

Phone: 949-612-2349

What the stars mean:

0 = poor, unacceptable

1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities

2 = good, solid, above average

3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm

4 = world-class, extraordinary in every detail

Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.

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