Riverwest girl rests her head on Riverwest boy’s shoulder. She has a bit of the hippie dancer about her lithe frame. He – seated so close that they seem to share some limbs – is a mixture of IT geek and indie band frontman. As Riverwest boy lifts a forkful of veggie taco and black beans to Riverwest girl’s mouth, it’s like he’s feeding a fragile bird. It’s as though they’re on their own little island, yet life presses on with the clanging of plates, the frenzied steps of servers and garrulous chatter of neighboring diners.
Cafe Corazónis a beating heart. Steady, rhythmic.The stone-sided building is a curiosity, a turret-like introduction that leads to the narrow space – bar, dining room and short-order kitchen. Sparkly red curtains drape over the windows; the walls are blue with red trim. But the visual “corazón” (the Spanish word for “heart”) is the bar and its shrine-like back shelves: It showcases Corazón co-owner John Kelly’s collection of religious statuaries and Day of the Dead tchotchke. Kelly, all tatted arms and graying beard, is busy mopping up spills on the bar top and dipping the rims of margarita glasses in salt.
The body count hits upward of 30 and that’s where it must stay. People also line up in the doorway, waiting for a retro bar stool or a seat at one of the slate-blue tables.
Partner George Mireles fills a basket with tortilla chips, then pours white wine into a juice glass. George and his wife, Wendy, have the gastronomic vision. Wendy’s parents own Richway Acres, a Waupun farm that supplies the beef for the taqueria staples (tacos, burritos, tortas), the Corazón burger and the steaks offered as specials. George runs the small kitchen, which also turns out steamed mussels, grilled tilapia and a weekend brunch featuring empanadas and huevos rancheros. Orders arrive on white dinner plates, a dash of queso here, a sprinkle of cilantro there.
The Corazón guacamole, the all-important test of a good Mexican joint, is creamy – a respectable dip for the grainy tortilla chips. Salsa comes in two varieties: “spicy” green tomatillo (but I still consider it mild) and thin, cilantro-dotted red, $3.
I don’t expect the steamed mussels to leave the impression they do. But they’ve been sautéed in white wine with onion, jalapeño and lots of crumbled chorizo – and they ooze charm. They also make a copious meal, with a half-dozen slices of thick, toasted bread ($10).
The tortilla-based items taste like they’re fresh out of a street cart in Mexico City. For tacos, the carnitas (seasoned pork) and mechada (pulled beef) settle snugly into the warm corn tortillas with sliced radish, queso and cilantro ($3 each, or $9 for three tacos with standard Mexican rice and good stewed black beans). The key moistening factor – the tomato-based sauce – was on the scant side for the enchiladas ($7-$8). But the grilled tilapia is balanced all around – a combination of its light, house-made cream sauce, cilantro rice and colorful sautéed vegetables ($11). Like the mussels, an unexpected treat.
Earlier this summer, the partners added red umbrella-topped picnic tables on the patio behind the whimsical building. A way to handle the crowds, but obviously lacking the singular ambiance of the cafe’s interior. George Mireles says he’s been asked why they don’t expand. But he has no intention of doing that. And I’m glad. Cozy places like Corazón and centro café, a half-mile south on Center, render Riverwest its own welcome identity, its heart– so different from East Side, Downtown and Bay View.
Cafe Corazón: 3129 N. Bremen St., 414-810-3941. Hours:Tues-Fri 5-9 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Brunch Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) Prices: salads/soups $3-$10; tacos, tortas, burritos, quesadillas $3-$8; entrées $7-$11. Service: hurried, friendly. Dress: whatever your mood dictates. Credit cards: M V. Nonsmoking. Handicap access: no. Reservations: no.