Breakfast Plato at the Little One (Credit: Jackie Tran)
“I live in a fishing village outside of San Carlos, Sonora every other week,” said Sandra Davila, co-owner of downtown’s The Little One.
On her way down, Davila delivers supplies to Sonoran organizations, including the Meson de Jesus shelter in Guaymas and a transition home for adult orphans in Magdalena. The donations are provided by customers, who put money in a jar on the restaurant’s counter. In March and April, they gave a total of $1,740 dollars.
“We really research where everything is going, so we have a relationship with every place,” said Marcela Davila-Barley, Sandra’s co-owner and younger sister. “If people are putting money in the jar, our feeling is that they’re donating because they want to help someone in need. So we make sure it’s going specifically to buying care packages, buying fresh school supplies, socks, underwear, shoes for kids.”
Sandra returns from Sonora with fish and seafood for the restaurant. Sometimes she buys it from local fisher people, but frequently she catches it herself. On a recent Friday, Sandra, wearing a green embroidered shirt and cargo pants, showed off the prawns she caught during her most recent week in Mexico. They were huge — four or five inches long — and smelled incredibly fresh.
The sisters have restaurant-industry roots on both sides of the border — their father Luis started one of the first drive-in restaurants in Sonora. The family later relocated to Tucson, and in the late 1980s Luis and daughter Suzana opened The Little One, which at that time was called Little Cafe Poca Cosa. Suzana was already running Café Poca Cosa, now a long-time Tucson favorite, and it was moving across the street, leaving the original storefront vacant.
“She pulled my dad out of retirement and said, ‘Papi, anyone who moves in here is gonna be a competition for me, I would rather it be you and we work together,’” Marcela said. “So my dad came out of retirement, my mother [Belen Davila] had always done the books, my father did the cooking, and then I became one of his first waitresses. It’s always been very family oriented.”
Sandra Davila, Belen Barley, and Marcela Davila-Barley at the Little One (Credit: Wren Awry)
Luis died in 2013 and Belen retired recently, but The Little One is still a family affair.
“The next generation is just coming in. [My daughter] Belencita actually wants to be a nurse, but she’s been helping wait tables and with catering for years, my son as well,” Marcela said. “Suzana’s two older children, Shanali is a pastry chef and her son Christopher is a bartender at the big Poca Cosa.”
While The Little One and Café Poca Cosa are separate businesses, the three sisters are supportive of one another’s accomplishments and aspirations.
“Suzana’s much more elegant than we are, the prices [at Café Poca Cosa] are higher, but she has a beautiful bar, she has a beautiful selection of desserts,” Marcela said. “Sandra has done a lot of traveling, so she brings in ideas from other places. There’s a saying in Spanish, ‘tiene una buena cuchara,’ of the three of us she has the best spoon for cooking. And I think I’m the best, because I’m a mom, at figuring out what we have and what we can create out of what we have.”
“We pretty much follow our instincts in the kitchen,” Sandra said. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and say, you know, I feel like doing this.”
Specials change daily. Recent offerings include fire-roasted chilled gazpacho, poblano relleno, and pollo en crema de chile colorado.
The regular menu is affordable and inventive with vegetarian and vegan options also available. For breakfast, diners can choose from a selection of Mexican classics including huevos rancheros ($7.50), huevos con machaca ($8.50), and vegetarian tamal de elote ($7.50) or chile relleno ($7.50). The Poca Cosa omelette ($12) comes stuffed with any entrée on the lunch menu that can reasonably fit inside it — the chile relleno, for example, wouldn’t work, although the barbacoa de res, pollo en mole negro, or cochinito en chile colorado would.
The lunch menu includes options such as vegetarian chile relleno ($8.50), caldo de pollo ($8.50), and cochinita en crema de chipotle ($8.50). The homemade mole, served as part of the pollo en mole negro ($9.50), is spicy and rich with notes of chocolate. The carne en chile verde ($9.50) features tender roasted sirloin tip simmered in a mix of fresh and piquant green chiles and poblanos.
Sandra Davila roasting vegetables at the Little One (Credit: Wren Awry)
Larger entrées include the loaded quesadillas ($13), which come topped with an entrée, and the Plato Surprise Plate ($13), which consists of three menu items chosen by the chef. Lunch dishes are served with a green salad, fresh fruit, vegan rice and beans, and corn tortillas.
The Little One’s drink menu also features a rotating selections of juices ($2 per glass). Recent flavors include tamarindo, beet-mandarin, and the refreshingly bright jamaica-mint. Other options include coffee ($1.75), black tea ($2), jamaica ($2), horchata ($2.50), and iced coffee-chata ($3.50), a mix of iced coffee, horchata, and Mexican vanilla.
For Sandra and Marcela, customer service is an extension of their family-minded and community-minded ethos. Both sisters, who switch off managing the restaurants on a weekly basis, are known for hugging their customers and inquiring into their lives.
“To us, it’s an experience,” Marcela said. “It’s not just coming to a restaurant to get a meal. We feed a whole person. One of the comments we get all the time is that it’s like being at home, and if you don’t have that kind of home it’s the kind of home that you wanted to have.”
Like most homes, there are rules, and the sisters urge customers to follow them.
Minimizing waste is a priority, as servers ask if you want a straw, chips and salsa, and rice and beans before bringing them to the table.
“We are really quick to say, ‘hey you ordered that, eat it,'” Marcela said.
Additionally, the Little One doesn’t use any disposable containers — they sell reusable containers for guests that don’t finish their food.
Another unusual policy is lively loud music at lunchtime.
“The music isn’t for you, it’s for us,” Sandra said. “I have to cook with music, I have a low attention span, so the music has to change constantly or otherwise I lose it.”
Plato Surprise Plate at The Little One (Credit: Wren Awry)
“We have great customer service and a beautiful meal,” Marcela said. “We’re going to pay attention to you, but we’re not going to change the atmosphere of the restaurant to suit the mood that you’re in at that moment.”
The Davila family’s caring-but-honest service and delicious food has turned this casual breakfast and lunch joint into a Tucson favorite. The Little One has never paid for advertising, only accepts cash, and doesn’t have a phone or email address. Until recently, the only social media pages they had were set up by fans — Belen Barley, Marcela’s daughter, is now doing social media for the restaurant and recently started their Instagram account @thelittleone1985. Yet, the restaurant has a loyal and growing customer base, a solid reputation in culinary circles, and recently made Oprah Magazine’s list of “The Best Thing to Eat in Every State.”
“I think that’s it, just love, that’s the most important part to all three of us,” Marcela said, referring to herself, Sandra, and Suzana, “We try to do it with love, and we enjoy what we do.”
The Little One, formerly known as Little Cafe Poca Cosa is located at 151 N. Stone Ave. Operating hours are 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. Monday – Friday, “closed all holidays and when the fish are biting.” Keep up with the Little One on Facebook.