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DC Corazon offers tacos, mole and all the comforts of home

From left, Azucena and Maria Leiva and Evelyn and Edward Ward enjoy lunch in the heart-drenched dining room at DC Corazon on 14th Street NW in Washington. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

Unrated during the pandemic.

The heart, as a symbol for our affection, has become a political token in the 21st century. We collect ♥s on social media as signs of our popularity. We parcel them out as expressions of empathy, love and appreciation, even perhaps when our hearts aren’t fully committed to the act. We sometimes use ♥s as little more than placeholders, as reminders to circle back to content that we will decide later whether we truly love or not.

At DC Corazon Fonda and Tequileria, owner Josefina Darui uses heart imagery as a motif. Glass hearts hang from the otherwise barren branches of a mixed-media tree installed in a corner of the restaurant. A painted wood sculpture — part sacred heart iconography, part Harley Davidson wings — is affixed to a wall, serving as DC Corazon’s official logo and a selfie zone. Metal hearts that double as wind chimes dangle near the entrance. Even the rice served with your pollo con mole verde will arrive in the shape of a heart.

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Given DC Corazon’s profusion of hearts, you might be tempted to compare the restaurant to a (pick your favorite) celebrity’s Instagram page, where ♥s are hoarded with the ease of candy at Halloween. But that would miss the point. Darui doesn’t amass hearts to validate a mood or to signal her relevancy. To her, those hearts represent a personal philosophy: the triumph of the individual over the mass-produced. Each one of the hearts is a handcrafted piece of art.

“The beauty of every piece is different,” Darui tells me. “It’s like you or me, we will never be a copy. Nobody will be like any other heart.”

You could say the same thing about DC Corazon. Darui has created a singular Mexican restaurant on a stretch of 14th Street NW that already has a wealth of them. Part of her operation’s singularity is its commitment to the handmade. Her kitchen makes its own tortillas, gorditas, huaraches and sopes from blue-corn masa. The team labors over a 25-plus ingredient red mole that requires, Darui estimates, 35 minutes of constant stirring. The cooks also prepare a line of seven vegetarian tacos, some rather unorthodox, such as one in which hibiscus flowers sub for the pork in traditional al pastor.

DC Corazon owes its distinctiveness to its owner. A native of Mexico City, Darui used to have a travel agency just a couple of doors down on 14th Street. When not arranging trips, she managed properties, for nearly 20 years by her accounting. She will be the first to tell you that she knew nothing about the restaurant industry. But when her two children graduated from college, she decided it was time for a new venture. She was going to run a restaurant, and she was going to run it her way, as individual as those sacred hearts.

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The traditional rules of operating a Mexican restaurant don’t always apply to DC Corazon. Darui has a vision of how she wants to present the food of her native country: not heavy or complicated, not precious or Americanized, just homestyle cooking plated with grace, the kind of food her mom would prepare for long weekend parties. The term has been usurped by chefs and restaurateurs in Mexico, but DC Corazon is the genuine article: a fonda that channels the many tastes of the family that owns it.

When DC Corazon opened last year, it had a full-time chef, but when he took his leave just months into the restaurant’s life, Darui went full-on fonda. The dishes are the kind that she eats at home, the recipes for which were cobbled together from multiple sources. Those dishes are served on tablecloths that combine the vibrant influences of traditional Tehuana dressmaking and Japanese manga art, each fabric made by Darui’s sister, Maria Del Pilar Arias, who lives in Mexico City. You dig into those dishes surrounded by artwork, much of which was pulled from Darui’s own home.

The kitchen has a command over many of the plates, especially those, presumably, handed down to Darui from her elders. The exceptional guacamole, a version the owner learned at her father’s side, hums with garlic freshly pounded in a molcajete. The sublime sopa Azteca benefits from the smokiness of roasted tomatoes and the sly fruitiness of barely reconstituted pasilla chiles. The red mole — a potent lava flow infused with the heat of seven varieties of chile — provides the edge often missing from a portion of tender filet mignon.

Blue-corn masa is pressed into a variety of duties. It’s formed into soft, fragrant tortillas that swaddle the standard-issue fillings and a few vegetarian outliers, the latter of which are occasionally more interesting to read about than consume. I love the fried avocado taco, a Darui original that earned a spot on my recent list of favorites, but the hibiscus flowers in that al pastor-style preparation sometimes clump together with the achiote paste, making for an altogether tart and gritty bite.

The same masa serves as the base for a number of pockets and cakes, whether huaraches or gorditas, corn-flour foundations that are typically fried before being stuffed or topped with your preferred proteins and vegetables. But because Darui wants to lighten her food, she has the kitchen cook the masa on a flat top. The preparation can make for some delicious if sloppy eating, as the wetter ingredients return your gordita pocket or huarache substrate to its soft masa form. This holds particularly true for takeout and delivery orders.

The curious case of the dissolving masa cake is one moment when you encounter the limitations of Darui’s DIY ethos. Another is the pollo con mole verde, in which the nutty sauce cannot conceal the flaccid skin that slips and slides atop the chicken leg and thigh. At that moment, I would have preferred a kitchen that crisped the skin.

On the whole, however, the pluses far outweigh the minuses. This holds especially true for the service. One day, a friend and I were sitting on the rainbow-blaze of a patio — savoring a wide selection of dishes, including a superb Veracruz shrimp infused with about 1,000 cloves of garlic, and an ingenious dessert of soft custard atop a corn cake — when we were suddenly surrounded by staff. They were worried we weren’t enjoying our lunch because we had not inhaled every last morsel.

This is when DC Corazon’s inner mother came out: One person suggested the kitchen could reheat our meals so we could clean our plates.

DC Corazon Fonda and Tequileria

3903-3905 14th St. NW. 202-481-0511. Open: Indoor dining and takeout 1 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 1 to 11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $2 to $15; quesadillas, tostadas, huaraches, enchiladas, tacos and entrees, $4 to $23. Sound check: 68 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; at least one restroom is ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Floor staff is required to wear a mask, though some do not or do not wear them properly. Entire staff is vaccinated and boosted.