“It sounds like a bus station in here,” said my dinner guest, as we looked around the dining room at El Corazon, trying to figure out the source of the din. Slowly, the layers of sound began to resolve: a pair of dueling, high-volume televisions above the bar, each tuned to a different channel; lilting singer-songwriter tunes piped in through speakers overhead; and a cranky parent who kept barking, “Eat it!” to her non-compliant charge. I couldn’t figure out where to look.

Until the menus started to arrive, that is.

First, an oversized tan page featuring appetizers and more than a dozen entrees. Next, a gray menu: “It’s our new food menu,” our server told us. Then a thin sheet of à la carte dishes, followed by an extensive drinks menu. “No specials?” I joked with the server. “Oh, of course,” she replied, unsmiling. “They’re up there on the blackboard menu.” I shut up, for fear of learning about yet more choices.

Contrast this with El Corazon’s first four years serving Mexican dishes from a menu as concise as a haiku. Back then, brevity was a necessity, as the business operated solely out of a food truck, one of the few in Portland that remained open year-round.

“The first year, when we used to park on Spring Street by the arena, customers used to ask me if we’d be open in the winter, and I’d say, ‘Sure, sure. Of course,’ ” owner Joseph Urtuzuastegui, a sixth-generation Arizonan, told me. “Then winter came, and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ But I stayed loyal to the customers and did a lot of shoveling and breaking ice to get closer to the curb to make sure the truck wouldn’t be lopsided. With the restaurant open now though, I hibernated that truck.”

Losing the constraints of a tiny, mobile kitchen has allowed a diffusion of focus to creep in, diminishing many of the dishes. Enchiladas ($12.95) are filled with boiled, boneless chicken breast and thighs that have been finely shredded to the texture of tuna fish salad and sauced with a quickie version of a Oaxacan dark molé that substitutes peanut butter for ground pepitas and Abuelita chocolate for chocolate and cinnamon.

The same pasty poultry is part of El Corazon’s chicken sopes ($11.95), quick-fried cups made from maseca (a pre-mixed ground corn flour). Here though, the barely seasoned chicken is pressed into a makeshift patty that is griddled and placed into the sopes along with beans, lettuce, guacamole and queso fresco. Unfortunately, the little cornmeal nests aren’t fried long enough to keep them from disintegrating quickly as they absorb moisture from their fillings. And to add insult to injury, the entire plate is bland, the most vivid spicing coming from lemon pepper and celery salt.

So too, the albondigas soup ($4), a brothy bowl of meatballs, chunks of skin-on potatoes, carrots and celery so faintly seasoned that it divulges no hint of the Mexican oregano and special grilled green chiles from Hatch, New Mexico, that Urtuzuastegui has flown in every year.

There is considerably more seasoning in the Portland’s Own seafood cocktail ($10.95), a protein-packed appetizer teeming with Gulf of Mexico shrimp, bay scallops, octopus, red onion, jalapeño and local clams. Think of it as a cross between gazpacho and ceviche, served in a jelly jar, with a dried-out lobster claw pointing skyward. Despite the fiery thrum of peppery heat, the sauce – made from Clamato juice, ketchup and Jarritos mandarin soda – is sickly sweet, and the pre-blanched seafood chewy.

Nearly every dish I tasted over two recent visits offered the same mixed bag of joy and disappointment. Many dishes are served with Urtuzuastegui’s housemade Mexican crema, a condiment that he prepares from heated cream, buttermilk and a little vinegar. It’s delightful, almost effervescently tangy, and demonstrates what El Corazon is capable of when it pays attention to small details.

Sadly, the crema sometimes accompanies dispiriting plates, like tacos featuring strips of fried North Atlantic pollock ($11.95) whose tawny breading derives color, but almost no flavor, from dark beer and achiote paste. Or the Sundevil carne asada ($16.95), a skirt steak advertised as “grilled to your liking,” but which, on one recent visit, instead emerged well-done, its edges brutally charred into a cinder.

Not all meats are so aggressively overcooked. Sometimes, the kitchen even seems to miss chances to provide a final, crisping finish, as on the slow-cooked pork served as a topping for the tostadas ($10.95) a new menu item. Here, fried corn tortilla rounds are overloaded with lettuce, melted Chihuahua cheese and surprisingly stringy, wet and flavorless carnitas.

On another visit, I tasted a better version of the carnitas – caramelized and still crisp in places – deployed sparingly as filling for quesadillas ($8.95). They, along with terrifically sloppy grilled Mexican-style corn-on-the-cob ($2.95 for a half-ear, $4.95 for a full ear), slathered generously in tart chipotle aioli, seemed to honor the best parts of El Corazon’s food-truck heritage, both recent and historical.

And there’s quite a bit of history here. “In the ’40s, my wife’s grandmother had the first food truck in Los Angeles. It was a big deal, and when famous people like Frank Sinatra were in town, they’d come,” Urtuzuastegui said.

I can just picture the Chairman of the Board seeking out El Corazon’s simpler, homier dishes – like a bubbly, floral hibiscus agua fresca ($2.50), or a supple, whisperingly bitter housemade flan ($5.95). But he’d have some work to do, choosing among dozens of plates spread across so many menus that servers don’t even seem to know what’s on them all.

As a result, it’s just as easy to imagine Sinatra unwittingly making the mistake I did, ordering a bleak and soggy slice of distributor-sourced tres leches cake ($5.95) that had no flavor other than sugar. It was a depressing finish to the second of my two confusing meals, and it left me pining for an El Corazon free of distractions, with a tight, focused menu that could easily fit on a curbside sandwich board.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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