Corazón Comedor Brings Mother-and-Son Magic to Santa Barbara
Ramon Velazquez Enlists Imelda Saldivar-Hernandez for Homestyle Restaurant
“The whole idea of this place is nostalgia,” explains restaurateur Ramon Velazquez about Corazón Comedor. “And that takes time.”
He’s finding less and less of that these days, having just opened this latest establishment on East Victoria Street with two more on the way. So Velazquez — whose flagship Corazón Cocina came to the Santa Barbara Public Market on the other side of State Street almost seven years ago — enlisted the best person to create the estilo casero, or homestyle cooking, that he envisioned for Corazón Comedor: his own mother, Imelda Saldivar-Hernandez.
Saldivar-Hernandez, whose two loves are cooking and flowers, worked as a floral manager at Vons for 27 years before coming to Comedor. She’s the “chief florist” — adding dramatically simple bouquets of, say, yellow caspia and deeply hued morning glory to each table — but also the keeper of recipes for the restaurant’s refried beans, tamales, and guisados, single-pot stews typically eaten with tortillas. Though this new partnership came unexpectedly for Saldivar-Hernandez, the mother-son pair is no strangers in the kitchen.
“Ramon was different,” she remembered, explaining that he never adopted the “machismo” attitude prevalent in many Mexican households that expect women to do the cooking. “Growing up, his dad wouldn’t even fry an egg. But Ramon was interested in cooking since he was 7 years old.”
Saldivar-Hernandez is happy to share her cooking secrets, like frying dried chile de arbol as a base for her refried beans or using ice cubes to promote moisture retention in the tamale masa. But the most important ingredient for her is “corazón,” or heart, and she insists that Corazón Comedor’s kitchen staff adopt her philosophy of cooking with love.
Velazquez’s culinary career began alongside her, working at their fonda — a small eatery often run out of a family home — back in Guadalajara as a child. “She’s an amazing cook, and the goal of this place is to preserve her recipes,” he said. “I want Corazón Comedor to feel like eating at someone’s mom’s or grandma’s place.”
The food does taste like home. The welcome pile of totopos — homemade tortilla chips — is topped with crema, aromatic molé coloradito, bright queso fresco, and frijoles del rancho, whose meaty flavor comes from the pork fat popular in Mexico’s rural areas. Appetizers include small sopes, quesadillas, flautas, and the house salad with a cinnamon vinaigrette, and then the menu opens into tacos — three veggie versions plus various chicken, pork, beef, and shrimp guisos — as well as tamales, enchiladas, and pozole.
Add to all that your choice from a spread of salsas. There’s the tatemada, which means roasted, with red tomatoes, serrano chile peppers and garlic; the cruda, or raw, with avocado and tomatillo; the habanero, with cooked tortillas, burnt garlic, onion tops, and cream; and the crunchy salsa macha, with dried chilis, toasted pecans, peanuts, sesame seeds, and pepitas.
The vibe is upscale and down-home at the same time. You could snag a quick bite, or course out a meal with wine pairings from producers in both Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe and California’s Central Coast. The juxtaposition reflects the time Velazquez spent working in Mexico City, where high-end restaurants exist on the same corners as a stand selling street tacos and quesadillas stuffed with nopales and melted cheese. He even sells one of the oldest drinks in the Americas: champurrado, originally made by the Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica with just water, corn, and cacao.
To Velazquez, these foods connect closest to the concept of home. “When is the only time we get together as a family? When we eat,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to eat with friends from Ethiopia, India, or Peru here in the States, you are eating the closest thing they have to their home. Especially for people who can’t go home or are restricted from traveling, food is how they recreate the place they are from. That’s part of what inspired me to open Corazón Comedor, to recreate that feeling of home. It’s soul food.”
As a leader of an expanding empire, Velazquez must increasingly depend on his team to execute that vision. The “family,” as he calls them, is made up of folks who toggle back and forth between the original location Corazón Cocina at the Public Market and the Comedor. “I trust them with everything,” he said ardently. “You have to empower people to take on responsibility. That’s how people excel.”
Next on the horizon is Jaguar Moon, a tequila and mezcal bar collaboration with Good Lion Hospitality in Ventura; and seafood-focused Tacos Roma at the Montecito Country Market, where Little Alex’s once stood.
But his first order of business is making churros at Corazón Comedor to go with Rori’s Artisenal Creamery’s mezcal-cajeta ice cream. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to figure out in the kitchen,” he laughed, “but I’m going to do it.”
29 E. Victoria St.; (805) 679-5397; corazoncomedor.com
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