Several years ago, Café Poca Cosa moved from its location in a mid-level hotel to a somewhat spectacular location on E. Pennington in downtown Tucson. Gone is the explosion of colorful folk art everywhere, as well as the sense that you are discovering four-star food in an unexpected setting. In the new Cafe Poca Cosa, with its sweeping, stylish dining room and objects of Mexican art on display as if in a museum, you expect to eat regally. And you do. It’s a cooler environment than before, not as hospitable-seeming as it once was. But the black-clad staff is well-trained and solicitous; and the food is as inventive and surprising as it was when Poca Cosa was new.
Proprietor Susanna Davila is an inspired chef, with a menu that reflects what chilies, spices, vegetables, and ingredients are fresh in the kitchen, and what her whim dictates. When you are seated, you are shown a portable blackboard with about a dozen choices on it, all of which need to be explained. Nothing on this menu is familiar; certainly, there are no tacos, enchiladas, or burritos. Nor are there appetizers and side dishes to choose. Each dinner comes complete on a plate with exactly what the chef believes it should have.
You will find some glorious chicken moles, or perhaps the variant of mole known as pollo en pipian, for which boneless chicken is cosseted in sauce made from bitter chocolate, crushed red chilies, Spanish peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and cloves. You will always find a tamale pie (pastel de elote) on the menu as a vegetarian alternative. Even if you are a devoted meat-eater, you should have it, for this tamale pie is creamy comfort food supreme, tender as a soufflé, always dressed up a little differently, topped with vivid green chili puree or a sweet mango sauce or, on our most recent visit, curried carrots.
Cafe Poca Cosa is where Chef Suzanna Davila plies her trade, cooking some of the best Mexican food I have ever had the pleasure to eat. The Cafe has moved to a new location on East Pennington Street and the new place is as lovely as the food. The dining room is a large open space with enough room between tables so that you don’t feel as if you are participating in your neighbor’s conversation whether you want to or not. The walls are a warm brick red, the ceiling black. The decor is modern, but not jarring or unpleasantly edgy.
We began with margaritas and the house’s complimentary salsa and chips. The salsa is made with chipotle peppers, with flecks of cilantro and hints of coriander and cumin. We couldn’t stop eating it. The margarita reminds me that presentation is almost everything. These drinks are as beautiful as they are delicious. We feasted twice–first with our eyes and then with our taste buds.
The menu is presented on a blackboard since it changes daily depending on what is fresh and available. Our server enthusiastically explained each of the items, and they needed explanation. This is not a typical Tex-Mex or even American-Mexican place. Neither of us could decide what we wanted so we both ordered the Plato Poca Cosa. Each plate contains three items from the menu and every plate is different. We sampled a tamale enrobed in beet sauce, pollo mole amarillo (almonds and sesame seeds), carne in chipotle/plum sauce, pollo chile colorado, carne asada with green peppers, onions, and roasted tomatoes, and a tamale con salsa blanca (cheese and white wine sauce). Davila’s sauces are ethereally light and perfectly balanced. Every bite is Mexican food bliss. Her mole makes me want to hop a plane for Oaxaca.
Dessert was chocolate cheesecake served with berries and honest-to-God whipped cream. It was fabulously delicious.
This restaurant is so good that it, alone, could make Tucson a place worth visiting. At $34.00 each, including tip, it is a steal.