Credit: Claire Hartnell

Spindly sprouts reaching out like green and purple fronds from the jungle. Radish slices commanding attention toward their fluorescent hues of fuchsia and violet. Crushed nuts and toasted seeds promising a satisfying crunch. Flowers, so many tiny flowers, beckoning your camera lens as much as your fork. 

Chef Ramon Velazquez | Credit: Claire Hartnell

During a recent tour through the revamped menu at the Corazón location inside The Project — which was closed from December until late July due to the pandemic and its many challenges — every dish looked vibrant and alive, from the kampachi crudo swimming in a bright-green sauce of yuzu, jalapeño, and grapefruit to the banana-leaf-wrapped ocean trout, served atop a vividly yellow, aji-powered corn sauce.

These flourishes, equal parts visual, textural, and flavorful, are the hallmark of Chef Ramon Velazquez, the Guadalajara-born Santa Barbara High grad who was the first non-Japanese chef to work the sushi bar at Arigato. He stayed for nearly a decade before opening the Latin America–exploring restaurant Cielito in La Arcada Plaza in 2012. Then came the Mexican-street-food-focused Corazón Cocina, which opened in the Santa Barbara Public Market in 2014 after a series of sold-out pop-ups inside of Three Pickles. 

In the summer of 2019, Velazquez teamed with Captain Fatty’s Brewery to open The Project between State Street and the Funk Zone, serving more upscale, sit-down-friendly Mexican dishes to both establishments. That worked well until COVID-19 showed up, and the half-year closure forced Velazquez to reconsider his menu.

“This is more shared-plate, family-style,” general manager Louis Bristol explained of the scaled-back menu. “But we’re also trying to bring out more of what we grew up with, like black-eyed peas and heirloom corn and the ancho chicken we know from childhood barbecues. It’s more village-centric.” 

The regional representations span from the seafood-rich regions of Nayarit and Sayulita to the heavier spices of Oaxaca to the endless creativity of Mexico City, where so many global traditions converge. “I am from Guadalajara, but I love Mexico City,” said Velazquez, who likes to quote Anthony Bourdain’s comment that if Spain and New York City had a baby, it would be Mexico City. “You can eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant and one block away are the best tacos in the world,” he explained.  

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At Corazón, those broad influences could be found in my tuna tostada, topped with a Baja-inspired ponzo and the ever-popular salsa macha, with nuts and chiles chopped up together; in the mashed avocado guacamole, with a pistachio version of salsa macha as well as zaa’tar; and in a standout mushroom quesadilla. I could barely see its bright-orange taco shell for all the blooming squash and white herb flowers on top, but once unearthed, it spilled forth shiitake, oyster, and maitake mushrooms as well as Oaxacan and tangy goat cheese, all tied together in a poblano crema.

The clams y chorizo was equally extravagant, its tomato broth fired up by house-made chorizo and chunks of earthy nopales, its shellfish a mix of clams and Hope Ranch mussels. “That’s our Santa Barbara in a bowl,” said Bristol, as I slurped from the bowl after dusting the charcoal-charred Oat Bakery sourdough wedge. “For $25, we think it’s a steal.”

The cocktails impressed as well. The Piña Picosa was, as advertised, a spicy pineapple-flavored mezcal drink, more acidic and refreshing than sweet, despite the sugared rim. The Fur de Lance paired the chili-flavored Ancho Reyes with gin, while the Mariposa, a mix of vodka, creme de cassis, and mint, showed that mouthfeel can play a major role in mixology. If beer is more your thing, head to Captain Fatty’s next door and sip on their suds while enjoying another menu from Velazquez, including birria grilled cheese with consommé, wild shrimp quesadillas, and The Project burger with homemade chorizo. 

Credit: Claire Hartnell

And he’s not done with making menus. Opening soon on East Victoria Street will be his new Corazón Guisados, serving the single-pot stews preferred by the working class in large cities around Mexico. It’s in part a response to his accountant mentioning that Velazquez was making his food “too pretty” — “I think you’re right,” he agreed with a laugh. Whatever the reason, Corazón Guisados, which will also serve tamales and churros con chocolate, will bring the down-home style of his homeland to downtown Santa Barbara.

Across his menus, Velazquez is trying to serve the food that modern visitors to Mexico will encounter, not the rice-and-beans menus that dominate so many Mexican restaurants north of the border. “This really represents the Mexico we all know and love,” said Bristol. “It’s more of what’s inside Mexico and not so much of the Americanized Mexico.”

Explained Velazquez, “It’s authentic to us.”

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