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La Casita Cafe – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Casita Cafe

La Casita Cafe in Bernalillo

Is there still a place in the American restaurant scene for hometown mom and pop institutions? According to the Nation’s Restaurant News, a respected trade magazine, almost fifty percent of the 100 largest chains saw flat or declining growth rates in sales in 2006.  Those rates are largely attributed to the sheer volume of restaurant concepts (chains) cluttering the landscape.

I like to think that another reason for the decline of the ubiquitous chains that blight American streets is the increasing realization among the dining public that better food, value and service can be found in mom and pop dining establishments.  La Casita Cafe in Bernalillo is one restaurant validating that contention as evidenced by the overflowing throngs that consider it a favorite dining destination.

Chips and salsa are complimentary at La Casita Cafe

Chips and salsa are complementary at La Casita Cafe

La Casita is a local institution, beloved by Bernalillo residents and Albuquerque diners who don’t mind driving a few miles for generous portions of good New Mexican food at reasonable prices.

Family owned and operated since 1982 by Bernalillo residents Donna and John Montoya, La Casita was destroyed by fire in July, 2005.  It took nearly two years before it would open again. The restaurant’s re-launch in June, 2007 was a day for celebration for dining patrons eager to renew their acquaintance with some of their favorite New Mexican staples as La Casita prepares them.

Entering the premises, those faithful flocks may have thought they were in a different restaurant altogether–and in a sense they were.  La Casita underwent a complete refurbishment.  Esthetically and functionally, it is almost entirely different from its predecessor.

The three enchilada combination plate served Christmas style

The three enchilada combination plate served Christmas style

The original La Casita Cafe proudly celebrated its Bernalillo heritage by displaying framed posters, all painted by local artists, of all the Bernalillo Wine Festivals held since that event’s inception. The new La Casita is less colorful by design.  Its earth-tone and wood exterior is intended to complement the neutral color scheme of other businesses along Camino del Pueblo.

The restaurant is more expansive than the original structure and includes two distinct dining rooms.  A large foyer comfortably accommodates patrons on the inevitable waiting list though weather permitting, it seems most prefer waiting on the capacious porch.

A mosaic design on the foyer’s multi-hued earthen tile and faux Anasazi stonework lend to the Southwestern ambience.  The visual centerpiece in the main dining room seems to be a reddish Kiva fireplace.  Wrought-iron designs festoon the walls while tables and chairs include the sunburst design so prominent in Spanish furniture crafted in New Mexico.

Carne adovada plate

Carne adovada plate

Service is attentive and amiable.  Best of all, salsa is complementary with your first bowl arriving just shortly after you’re seated.  It’s salsa with a bite, maybe not enough to bring a glisten to your brow, but enough to awaken your taste buds.  The chips are fresh, crisp and lightly salted.

The menu is replete with New Mexican food favorites, both traditional and contemporary.  Appetizers include jalapeno cheese poppers served with Ranch dressing, a non-traditional offering that has been popularized by a pseudo Mexican chain.  All plates are garnished with lettuce, tomato and cheese unless you request otherwise.  Plates also include rice, beans and two sopaipillas.

La Casita’s create your own combo gives diners a lot of flexibility to craft a plate featuring either two, three or even four of their favorites from among cheese and onion enchiladas, chicken enchiladas, a side of carne adovada, chicken taco, green chile chicken tamale, ground beef enchilada, chile relleno, ground beef taco or red chile pork tamale.  The only restriction to this cart blanche is that the enchiladas must be rolled.

Sopaipillas

Sopaipillas

There’s even flexibility in the enchilada offering.  The enchilada plate features three corn tortillas, rolled or flat, filled with your choice of cheese and onion, ground beef, chicken or a combination of the three.  Best of all you can have your enchiladas Christmas style with both red and green chile.  All three enchiladas are good, especially if you love cheese.   The plate is crowned with melted strands of Cheddar cheese.  It even blankets the beans and rice.

Entrees at La Casita are served hot–as in steaming on the plate.  This always earns extra points from me.  In terms of piquancy hot, the red chile is only mild.  The green generally has more bite.  A “heat” indicator is one of the first things you see when you walk in so you’ll know just what to expect from the chile. 

Alas there is one entree we haven’t found particularly exciting.  Sadly it’s La Casita’s carne adovada which is overpowered by a spice I believe is Mexican oregano.  There’s so much of it, my dining companion asked if crushed peppercorns were part of the restaurant’s recipe for carne adovada.  What would otherwise be a very good, well marinated and extremely tender adovada is rendered difficult to eat by the almost bitter aftertaste imparted by the potent spice.

Stuffed Sopaipilla with red and green chile

Another dish which could be better is the stuffed sopaipilla plate served Christmas style.  As shown in the image above, both the red and green chile are almost soupy in their liquidity. So is the Spanish rice which practically swims in a tomato sauce.  The whole pinto beans, on the other hand, are quite good as is the seasoned ground beef and bean combination engorging a single rounded sopaipilla.  There are many options with which you can stuff the sopaipilla, including carne adovada.  The sopaipilla, as with several entrees at La Casita, is topped with enough cheese to keep a family of mice happy for a month.

There are many good reasons La Casita Cafe has been welcomed back by Bernalillo dining patrons and not all of them are reflected on the menu.  La Casita is like home only you don’t have to cook or do the dishes.  It’s owned by people you might want as friends and neighbors and it serves much better food than you’ll find in most chains.  Welcome back, La Casita.

La Casita Cafe
567 Camino del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico

1st VISIT: 5 October 2007
LATEST VISIT: 25-April-2010
CLOSED: April, 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 16
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Combination Enchilada Plate

La Casita Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cafe Cornucopia – Bisbee, Arizona

Cafe Cornucopia, named one of the 25 best restaurants in Arizona by Arizona Highways magazine

Cafe Cornucopia, named one of the 25 best restaurants in Arizona by Arizona Highways magazine

The Hollywood stereotype of restaurant critics paints them rather unflatteringly as condescending misanthropes to be feared. Those stereotypes would have you believe restaurant critics are eager to pounce on and expose the slightest imperfection.  Armed with pedantic palates and polysyllabic vocabularies overflowing with unfavorable adjectives, critics are painted as joyless beings whose quest it is to impart their misery on the restaurants they evaluate.  To the critic, the exemplar is French cuisine and everything else is so much schlock to be disdained.

Consider the 1988 movie Mystic Pizza in which a snobbish restaurant critic renown for his “make or break” reviews deigned to visit a pizza parlor of all places.  With a stern countenance and belittling attitude, he based his entire review on having sampled little more than one bite.  Ostensibly his palate was sophisticated enough to render a verdict on the pizza after a minuscule sample.

Even the restaurant critics on animated features tend to be snotty. The aptly named Anton Ego from the delightful 2007 Pixar movie Ratatouille may have summed it up best: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.  We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.  We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and read.”

The very inviting ambience at Cornucopia

The very inviting ambience at Cornucopia

Sometimes stereotypes aren’t far from the truth.  There are some restaurant critics, particularly in largely populated metropolises, who wear those dour stereotypes like badges of honor.  That’s especially true when expressing their learned preference for “cuisine” as opposed to “food.”  All of their anointed restaurants tend to be of the haughty high-brow variety and readers are treated to a cavalcade of reviews heralding the critics’ haute cuisine favorites.  Some of these critics won’t deign to visit “real people” restaurants, much less recommend them.

That’s certainly not the case with one of my very favorite food critics, Phoenix-based Nikki Buchanan.  She defies Hollywood stereotypes, not only reviewing and recommending the off-the-well-eaten path treasures and humble havens of real food, but listing them as among her favorites.  Moreover, she writes in a light-hearted, personable manner and unlike “restaurant” critics, writes about bakeries, cafes, cocinas, pizzerias, sushi bars and even taco trucks.

In the April 2010 edition of Arizona Highways magazine, Nikki named Arizona’s best restaurants for 2010.  It’s a great list, a true “best of” and not an enumeration of the elite and elegant.  The list includes some of the most highly regarded restaurants in Phoenix, Sedona and Tucson, but it also includes far lesser-known and much more modest diners and cafes in rural enclaves such as Lake Havasu City, Page, Snowflake, Cornville, Yuma and Bisbee, none of which is a budding hub of population.

The hand-written menu and some of the pastries of the day

The hand-written menu and some of the pastries of the day

Far from being a burgeoning boom town, Bisbee has seen its population decline since the exodus of the little city’s copper-mining operations.  It remains, however, a town that’s too beautiful not to survive.  It is now an idyllic artists colony capitalizing on a climate the Chamber of Commerce claims has “the best climate on Earth.”  The southernmost mile-high city in America, its average year-round temperature is about 74-degrees.  Attitudinally and in the way multi-hued homes are splayed on steep hillsides accessible only on foot, it might remind you of San Francisco–only friendly.

Bisbee’s best lunch spot, according to Nikki Buchanan, is Cafe Cornucopia in the heart of a Main Street which could pass for a 1930s movie set.  Occupying the first floor of a historical building, its exterior stone facade reminiscent of days of yore, Cafe Cornucopia has none of the flash and panache of modern restaurants.  Its signage is plainly lettered with a monochromatic horn of plenty image.  A large picture window, though tinted, doesn’t entirely obfuscate views of the restaurant’s interior.  It is a bright and cheery ambience, floors clean enough to eat from.

Cafe Cornucopia is much longer than it is wide with tables for two lined up against the east wall and picture window.  A small bar counter sits three more patrons in close proximity to one of the most enticing displays of pastry perfection you’ll ever find.  At the rear of the restaurant are beautiful stained glass windows and a small balcony, remnants of the days in which a saloon occupied the venue.  Scrawled on two slate boards is the restaurant’s menu.  It’s hardly a compendium of lunch favorites, but rather a showcase of a select number of sumptuous sandwiches, soups and pastries.

Made to order strawberry lemonade and a raspberry razzmatazz

Made to order strawberry lemonade and a raspberry razzmatazz

The menu features two comforting soups de jour accompanied by a buttered slab of freshly baked rolled-oats-and honey bread delivered warm, towering sandwiches crafted on artisan bread, an inventive specialty quiche and soup and sandwich combinations.  Fresh-squeezed lemonade (or an alternate ade such as strawberry-lemonade) as well as superb smoothies are available to wash your meal down.  Baked goods of the day might include cookies, brownies and scones.

Cafe Cornucopia is bustling with activity, but the amicable staff is capable and upbeat, treating all guests to welcoming smiles.  We got there at precisely eleven o’clock and fifteen minutes later not a seat could be found.  Some, like us, came because of Nikki Buchanan’s enticing invitation to one of Arizona’s 25 best restaurants.  Others are frequent visitors, locals who recognize they’re in the presence of gastronomic greatness.

The made-to-order strawberry lemonade is the epitome of freshness–freshly squeezed lemons and ripe, red strawberries all naturally sweetened and wholly unlike the cloying, kids’ Kool-Aid-like strawberry lemonade some chains offer.  Cafe Cornucopia’s rendition is several orders of magnitude better than any other strawberry lemonade we’ve ever had.  The raspberry razzmatazz, a frothy pink smoothie served ice cold might be even better, a refreshing elixir for what ails you.  You might even long for a thirst-inspiring hundred-degree day so you could have two or three.

Hatch green chile and Cheddar sandwich on housemade ten grain bread with a cup of butternut squash soup

Hatch green chile and Cheddar sandwich on housemade ten grain bread with a cup of butternut squash soup

Having been away from the Land of Enchantment for five days, we needed a green chile fix and Nikki assured us we would find it at Cafe Cornucopia in the form of “much-loved Hatch green chile and cheddar.”  This sandwich is crafted on a canvas of homemade ten grain bread.  The first thing you’ll notice about this bread is just how moist it is. It’s wholly unlike the desiccated,desert dry bread you might buy at a grocery store.  It’s also slicked thickly and has the memorable aroma of bread just out of the oven.  It brought back memories of the ten-grain bread we enjoyed at the Mermaid in Burford, England.

The next thing you’ll notice on the sandwich is just how simple it is–strips of Hatch green chile and melted Cheddar cheese.  The green chile is only mild on the piquancy scale, emphasizing instead the fruitiness of the chile and not its heat.  The Cheddar provides a sharp and complementary contrast while fresh tomato slices add a bit of acidity.  You probably won’t call this a designer sandwich, but it is fabulous in its delicious simplicity.

Few things are as simple and comforting as the combination of soup and salad.  Cafe Cornucopia’s soup du jour offerings will wrap you in a cocoon of warmth and comfort.  The butternut squash soup is absolutely wonderful and it actually tastes like butternut squash and not artificial seasonings.  It’s not as thick as some of its genre, but it’s rich and creamy and it doesn’t have any unnecessary “attention grabbers” that are sometimes included in inferior soups.  The soup is served with a thick, buttered slice of heavenly freshly baked rolled-oats-and honey bread delivered warm.

Green chile and Cheddar Quiche with a slice of honey rolled oats bread and a cup of split pea soup

Green chile and Cheddar Quiche with a slice of honey rolled oats bread and a cup of split pea soup

We lucked upon another green chile enlivened special of the day in the green chile and Cheddar quiche.  Cafe Cornucopia’s version is simply the very best quiche we’ve ever had–the quintessential quiche!  A feather-light crust is the canvas for velvet-smooth eggs punctuated by fresh, fruity green chile.  Fragility and delicate yet robust in flavor, it is the essence of egg-based satisfaction.

Worthy accompaniment to the quiche is yet another warm, comforting bowl of soup with a thick slice of that “to dream about” honey rolled oats bread.  Try the split pea soup and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing all those years you’ve thought all split pea soup was like Campbell’s Soup aberration.  Though it’s not rib-stickingly thick, it’s rich, creamy and extremely satisfying.  On top of that it’s high in fibre and good for you being a source of low in fat plant protein.

Cafe Cornucopia’s baked goods are as delicious as they are pleasing to the eye.  They provide the climatic finish all meals should have.  The chocolate brownies are light, delicious and chocolatey.  Moist and tender on the inside, they need no embellishment or additives.  The lemon bars are similarly terrific with the definite and pronounced tanginess of lemon.

Chocolate brownie and lemon bar for dessert

Chocolate brownie and lemon bar for dessert

I’ve dined at about a hundred restaurants in Arizona and Cafe Cornucopia ranks with the very best of them.  In fact, given a choice as to one restaurant to return to next, it would be Cafe Cornucopia where the horn of plenty symbolizes a plethora of flavors and deliciousness.

Cafe Cornucopia
14 Main Street
Bisbee, Arizona
(520) 432-4820
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hatch Green Chile & Cheddar Sandwich on Ten Grain Bread, Hatch Green Chile and Cheddar Quiche,  Chocolate Brownie, Lemon Bar, Strawberry Lemonade, Raspberry Razzmatazz, Split Pea Soup, Butternut Squash Soup

Cafe Cornucopia on Urbanspoon

Cafe Poca Cosa – Tucson, Arizona

Cafe Poca Cosa in downtown Tucson, Arizona

Cafe Poca Cosa in downtown Tucson, Arizona

Stereotypes would have you believe English food and Mexican food are at the opposite end of the spectrum from one another…as different as day and night.  Those stereotypes paint English food as bland and unimaginative while Mexican food is depicted as spirited and exciting.  That makes it deliciously ironic that perhaps the foremost authority on Mexican food is an adventurous English woman named Diana Kennedy.  In 1957, she moved to Mexico and has spent most of her life since researching and documenting the culinary history of Mexican cuisine.

For her inestimable contributions to the documentation of regional Mexican cuisine, the government of Mexico awarded her the “Order of the Aztec Eagle” award, the Mexican equivalent of knighthood while Queen Elizabeth herself dubbed her “Member of the British Empire,” an award of similar distinction.  Once described in The Seattle Times as “the diva of doing it right,” Diana Kennedy champions authenticity in technique and ingredients and she’s a stickler for precision.

A lively and vibrant ambiance

A lively and vibrant ambiance

The late Craig Claiborne, pioneering food critic for the New York Times, once described Mexican cuisine as “peasant food raised to the level of high and sophisticated art,” an apt description of how Diana Kennedy elevated the cuisine of her adopted homeland.  Alas, not all Mexican restaurants share her passion for precision, her insistence on incomparable ingredients or her respect for one of the world’s truly great cuisines.  It is perhaps because of pseudo Mexican restaurants (particularly chains) that Mexican food isn’t held in the same regard as French and Italian food.

In one of her magnificent tomes, The Art of Mexican Cooking, Kennedy wrote, “Far too many people outside Mexico still think of them [Mexican foods] as an overly large platter of mixed messes, smothered with shrill tomato sauce, sour cream, and grated cheese preceded by a dish of mouth-searing sauce and greasy deep-fried chips. Although these do represent some of the basic foods of Mexico-in name only-they have been brought down to their lowest common denominator north of the border, on a par with the chop suey and chow mein of Chinese restaurants 20 years ago.”  Ouch!

Salsa and Chips

Salsa and Chips.

To be sure, that indictment of Mexican foods and the ways in which they are prepared and presented do not apply universally.  There are countless Mexican restaurants celebrating the cuisine and culture of Mexico which prepare its foods in traditional, time-honored ways, using high-quality and authentic ingredients.  Some of these restaurants plate their cuisine so artfully and ostensibly with so much love that they play tribute to the culinary traditions of Mexico and its champion, Diana Kennedy.  One of those paragons of presentation and tradition is Tucson’s Cafe Poca Cosa.

Tucson’s most celebrated Mexican restaurant, Cafe Poca Cosa (translating literally as little thing) unabashedly trumpets its passion for Mexican cuisine, stating in its Web site that, “When you dine with us, expect attentive, efficient service.  Be assured that every dish is infused with passion, using the freshest ingredients hand-selected every morning.”  Passion is one of the hallmarks of all successful restaurants and is the building block behind Cafe Poca Cosa — that and the culinary talents of its proprietor and chef Suzana Davila.

The constantly changing menu is brought to your table and carefully explained by the wait staff.

The constantly changing menu is brought to your table and carefully explained by the wait staff.

A native of Guaymas, Sonora, Suzana is a peripatetic presence at her restaurant, its perpetually smiling ambassador not tied to her kitchen.  She is a whirling dervish of motion, constantly checking up on her dining patrons, winning them over with the same charm, grace and style she must have exhibited in her previous life as a fashion model.   As for her cooking, Tucson Weekly believes it has the same enchanting properties as the extraordinary dishes prepared by Tita De La Garza in the fabulous novel Like Water For Chocolate.

In that novel, Tita’s unrequited love is channeled into her cooking, resulting in dishes that elicit passionate responses from those who partake of them.  Suzana Davila’s own enchantment has elicited passionate responses from (among others): Gourmet magazine, the New York Times, Wine Spectator magazine, Better Homes and Gardens and Roadfood.com.  In the April, 2010 edition of Arizona Highways magazine, Cafe Poca Cosa was selected as one of Arizona’s 25 very best restaurants.  It is part and parcel of every travel and food guide for Tucson and by most accounts, one of the city’s two or three very best restaurants.

Plato Poca Cosa, a triumvirate of tasty dishes courtesy of the chef's whims at the moment

Cafe Poca Cosa is awash in the vibrant and festive colors of Mexico attired in its most lively finery with an ambience melding contemporary chic meets whimsy with more than a touch of reverence for the traditional. It is both upscale and casual, an inspired bistro setting that doesn’t forget its roots. Folk art from Old Mexico festoons the walls while ornate plant arrangements add to the vitality.  Large picture windows across the length of the restaurant’s frontage belie the fact that the restaurant is much wider than it is deep.

Reservations are absolutely essential though they don’t necessarily ensure you’ll be seated at your appointed time.  Cafe Poca Cosa seems to invite lingering–even before you’re seated at your table.  Throngs of diners typically fill the restaurant to capacity and the entire edifice with the sounds of revelry.  No one seems to mind the noise levels.  They’re an expected part of the restaurant’s charm.  So too is the subdued lighting which unfortunately doesn’t allow for a complete visual appreciation of the culinary treasures laid out before you.

Carne Asada Zapoteca

The ill-fated Mr. Murphy (the luckless gentleman who posited the epigram “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) was our guest on the moonless night of our visit.  We were seated in perhaps the darkest corner of the restaurant with but candlelight to illuminate our table.  My camera’s flash doesn’t do justice to the artistic presentations of beautiful food we ordered.

There are no menus at Cafe Poca Cosa–at least not in the traditional sense.  The menu, which changes twice daily, is printed in Spanish on a portable chalkboard which the wait staff carries from table to table.  Your attendant will describe the entrees (there are no appetizers) in as much detail as you need.  Their descriptive flair, coupled with the challenge of recalling every item recited, seems to encourage spontaneity in ordering.  More likely than not, you’ll order the first item that really strikes your fancy.

Savvy diners will place themselves in the capable hands of the chef by ordering the restaurant’s safest and most frequently placed order, the Plato Poca Cosa, a trio sampler of the chef’s choosing.  Shortly after you’re seated and before the menu is presented, chips and salsa are brought to your table.  The salsa is fresh, but by New Mexico’s standards would rate no more than mild on a piquancy scale.  On a deliciousness scale, however, it is a force to be reckoned with.  Alas, the accompanying chips are pedestrian by any measure.  They are of store-bought quality and not worthy of the salsa.

Mexican chocolate mousse

Mexican chocolate mousse

It’s often been said that a large percentage of the appeal of any meal is in how it’s presented.  How an entree looks can greatly influence how much we enjoy it.  Along with the aroma emanating from any entree, one of the first mental stimuli we receive before we taste the flavor of the food is in seeing what is laid out in front of us.  At Cafe Poca Cosa, two deterrents detracted from the visual appreciation of what may have been an outstanding meal.  The first was the sheer darkness which obfuscated our visual acuity.  The second was the large leafy salad which dominated our plates.

From the little we could visually discern of our entrees, the named entrees were relatively minuscule in comparison with the greenery on our plates.  Though fresh, crisp and delicious, we didn’t visit Cafe Poca Cosa to partake of salad no matter how fresh the red and green peppers, large leaf lettuce, julienned vegetables and cantaloupe and watermelon slices.  The little there was of our carne asada Zapoteca was redolent with flavor, but there wasn’t enough of it on the plate that wasn’t covered in salad for us to really discern its ingredient composition and its ostensibly fine flavors.

The Plato Poca Cosa was similarly blanketed in salad ingredients.  My chef’s choice triumvirate featured machaca de poblano (shredded beef slow-simmered with egg, cilantro, garlic and fresh grilled poblano), pollo Toluca y chipotle (white meat chicken breast in tomato and garlic reduction with smoked red jalapeno chipotle) and pastel de elote en cilantro (a green corn tamale pie baked with white cheese and topped with cilantro and garlic cream with roasted serrano). Unobstructed by the salad, each of these might have been memorable, but when each spoonful included green ingredients, we could not discern much beyond the wonderful sweetness of the tamale pie.

Fortunately desserts are not covered in salad.  The chocolate mousse, a light and frothy whipped dark chocolate with a crushed Oreo base and flavored with Tia Maria, cinnamon, Kahlua and espresso is fabulous!  It was easily the highlight of our visit to Cafe Poca Cosa, a terrific dessert.

Should we have the great fortune to spend more time in Tucson, we’ll visit Cafe Poca Cosa when daylight hours illuminate the restaurant enough for the visual appeal process to be part of the complete meal appreciation process.

Cafe Poca Cosa
110 East Pennington Street
Tucson, Arizona
(520) 622-6400
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 17
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Mexican Chocolate Mousse, Pastel de Elote en Cilantro,