I am reminded to always look in unlikely places.
The ByWard Market Square building is known for ubiquitous, average and overpriced food. It’s a tourist trap.
But my best lunches in the past two months have been at Corazón de Maíz, a 15-seat, no-frills Mexican taquería nestled on the west side of the long, plaza-like building.
For dine-in, this is the kind of place that demands I leave my bulky purse at home.
The dining space would feel cramped if it weren’t for the full wall of windows.
But I’m not uncomfortable knocking elbows with my neighbours. There’s much interaction between staff and customers and amongst customers.
On one visit, I meet a busted-up old rodeo clown from Calgary, Alta.
Bright orange plastic bucket seats match the table tops, which have vintage-looking plastic tablecloths in cherry and tropical flower patterns stapled on top of them.
There is some additional seating for take-out customers by the door.
Patrons scrum the counter to read the tiny menu, neatly printed on two yellow-framed chalkboards hanging above the cash.
I choose the beef and pork soft-shell tacos, beef and pork quesadillas and tortilla soup.
I pour myself a glass of water at the bar and take a seat at the last available table in the corner.
The soup comes first – a generous tangle of fresh, perfectly crisp white corn tortilla chips pokes up out of the steaming bowl of broth. The long, gnarly chips aren’t oily at all.
The broth tastes of lime, Mexican oregano, achiote, guajillo chili and perhaps a touch of tamarind.
Its distinct tang and greenness vibrates against a background of true chicken and a garnish of salty queso.
The greenness is particularly striking when I get a bite of the guajillo chili garnish, with its green tea-like flavour.
The whole thing is smoothed by a barely-there squirt of crema and perfectly ripe diced avocado waiting to be stirred up from the bottom of the bowl.
As the chips disintegrate, they also serve to thicken the soup.
I identify the distinct pepper come nutmeg flavour of achiote in the cubed chicken breast’s reddish dry-rub.
The portion of chicken is generous.
The only thing that’s out of step with this fresh, hearty soup is the price. A soup like this easily goes for six dollars everywhere else, but here it is only four dollars.
Unfortunately, when I finish my soup I realize that Corazón de Maíz is stuck with the same boring music played throughout the building.
But not to worry, tacos are served promptly.
There’s a choice of white or blue corn tortillas. On blue corn, the dish is a touch sweeter and nuttier.
There’s also a choice of beef, chicken or pork.
The plate is three tacos with three layers: refried beans, braised, shredded and sauced meat and finely diced fresh salsa. There’s also a little paper cup of cold, bright green guacamole served on the side.
Everything is fresh and flavour-packed to the max.
Silky refried beans are cooked from dry in-house. I can tell because I can see a 12-litre transparent tote of pinto beans sitting on top of the wall oven in the open kitchen.
The shredded meat is moist and well-seasoned. I can’t distinguish all of the spices used, but I do detect garlic, cumin, Mexican oregano and achiote. The spices are the same on both the pork and the beef tacos.
I am disappointed with the meat on just one visit out of five, when the pork is served cubed. The cubed pork is clearly a drier cut and lacks both meaty flavour and the benefit that shredded meat has of being able to hold on to more sauce.
The third layer, finely diced fresh salsa, consists of onion, tomato, green and red bell peppers and cilantro leaves.
The tacos have little chili heat until the sauce-like salsas are added.
These salsas are served separately at a station across from the cash. I squeeze a bit of each one into five one-inch-tall cups. Lids are provided so that leftover salsa can be taken home.
The salsas are what make the dish.
Available are garlic and jalapeño, pickled jalapeño, sweet chipotle, morita dry pepper and salsa encabronada.
Garlic and jalapeño is a pale green, loose puree of raw onion, garlic and jalapeño. The pickled jalapeño salsa is similar, though more yellow in colour and made with pickled jalapeños. Both are medium-hot. But the acidity of the pickled option makes it a smidge hotter.
Orange-brown, mild sweet chipotle has a faint smoky aroma. I taste paprika.
My clear favourite is the deep orange-red morita dry chili salsa. Morita peppers are a type of chipotle, or smoke-dried jalapeño. The salsa comes in at a medium, distinctly dry heat. The dominant flavour and aroma is smoke.
The salsa encabronada is clearly a combination of fresh and dried chilies. It’s the most acidic of the salsas and by far the hottest. Going in for a sniff of the yellow-green, red-flecked sauce makes my nose run.
Serving the salsas on the side is a good idea because it makes the food more accessible to people who aren’t used to eating hot and spicy food.
The beef and pork quesadillas are made with the same meat as the tacos. They’re delicious, melty and everything that a quesadilla should be. However, the tortilla soup and the tacos are consistently the highlights of my meals.
This place will be awesome in the summertime when they throw open their garage-door-style wall of windows.
Address: 55 By Ward Market, Ottawa
Hours: lunch/take-out available
Liquor licence: none
Prices: all less than $10