Jan. 9 2015 05:07 PM

Diego Hernandez and his restaurant gardens make flavors pop

The smoked beef tartare
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Charlemagne the Truck struggled on the rutted incline, tires spinning on loose dirt, four-wheel drive be damned. Could the best restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe—one of the 50 best in Latin America—possibly be up this road? I was expecting a "Welcome to the middle of nowhere" sign. Or make that "Bienvenida al medio de la nada."

How, I wondered, could the sorts of pristine vegetables required by a restaurant of the reputation of Corazon de Tierra (Rancho San Marcos S/N, El Porvenir, 22984, Valle de Guadalupe) possibly survive these roads? As I pulled Charlemagne around the bend and past the overturned boat hulls that form the roof of the Vena Cava winery, I saw the answer to my question: Corazon's kitchen's supply chain ran mere feet from its own adjacent, extensive gardens.

Those gardens' most direct expression was an arugula salad with chioga beet. Every leaf, arrayed asymmetrically on the plate, was crisp, peppery and perfectly dressed. The beet lent the dish sweetness but also highlighted the earth from whence it came. The surprise lay in the crunch of the seeds and nuts that, oddly and pleasantly, were the only items daring to encroach into the right side of the plate. 

Corazon's garden appeared in showy form in the beef tartare dish, a light smoke treatment giving the meat a sexy luster. A single baby nasturtium leaf (bright green and both peppery and acidic) and a borage flower (periwinkle blue with cucumber-oyster notes) provided visual and flavor fireworks, dancing over and around the savory-smoky tartare.

Perhaps the dish of the meal was a corn tamale with suckling pig, parsnips and yellow mole. Chef Diego Hernandez's sensual, dramatic presentation—an egg-shaped tamale with a mysterious charred-oil sheen, the jutting tip of a parsnip launching off the tamale, all atop a yellow mole—was striking, but it was the soulful depth of the dish that really struck. The warm corn flavors of the tamale echoed the rich suckling pig, and bright and crunchy parsnips provided flavor and textural contrast with the light spice of the mole—angular and yet well-rounded—completing the dish.

A yellowtail with red-pepper emulsion and red chard was well-executed but less inspired: nothing I hadn't tasted before. Pork neck in mother sauce with carrots and parsnip purée was better, a study in contrasts between the savory suppleness of the muscle and the crispy, caramelized skin, and also between the puréed parsnips and the roasted carrots, with a surprisingly sweet baby bell pepper joining the fun. But the mother sauce—a reduction that's been continuing for three years, new stock being added on a regular basis—stole the show on one hand and complemented the entirety of the dish on the other.

Corazon's menu changes almost daily, so the dishes we tasted will likely not be yours. But those superlative gardens and Hernandez's talent for using them to make flavors pop and dishes surprise are the reason to hazard those roads to get there. On our way down the hill, Charlemagne the Truck struggled once again; he'd seen better roads, better days. I, on the other hand, cannot say I've enjoyed many better meals.

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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