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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Mexican Chocolate Mousse, Pastel de Elote en Cilantro,