Just steps away from the hustle of downtown is a place where the energy subsides. A hidden courtyard, set under a massive oak tree surrounded by a baby turtle-filled pond takes center stage. As the sun sets, the courtyard becomes illuminated by a canopy of strung lights.
Jo Schneider purchased La Cocina in 2010 and eventually transformed it into the light-strung oasis it is today. But the first thing she did was build a stage.
Music is a crucial part of La Cocina. They typically host live music Tuesday through Saturday evening during dinner, no matter the temperature.
“Everything was about being outside in this incredible Tucson environment in which we live.” Schneider said.
When people think of La Cocina, they often think of Mexican food. And although the menu includes several Southwest dishes to choose from, the eclectic menu features options ranging from Mexican to Thai to American. And there are plenty of options for vegans or vegetarians.
“I want my food to be accessible and affordable,” Schneider said. “Sort of my mission statement for this community.”
Drawing inspiration from seasonal ingredients, La Cocina’s menu reflects the time of year. Since seating is primarily outdoors, the heat is taken into consideration for what to serve. Lighter and cooler items take precedence during the summer, such as cold soups instead of hot. And salads like the summer melon salad with watermelon, honeydew, salt and pepper, lime zest, and watermelon vinaigrette.
“The food we provide is all house-made,” Schneider said. “It’s made with love and care, and I can provide you with a meal that is healthy, made with passion and love.”
A major component of La Cocina is the bar and nightlife. Most draft beer come from Arizona breweries, and the spirits are local too.
“Supporting our local people is important,” said Allie Baron, bar manager of the Cantina.
Baron recommends their margaritas, which feature all fresh ingredients. Everything gets made from scratch, including syrups and juices. One of the most popular flavors is the prickly pear margarita, with prickly pear sourced from Tucson-based Bean Tree Farm.
“It’s a delicious, earthy, and a very beautiful fuschia bright pink,” says Baron.
Across the courtyard sits Dusty Monk Pub, where you’ll find a different selection of beer and a more intimate setting. Previously used as La Cocina’s indoor dining space, the space transitioned in June 2014 to all bar.
Between the bars and kitchen, the community at La Cocina is strong.
“It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, not just because of the food we make, but also because of the atmosphere,” said Dean Moustafi, who helps manage the kitchen. “Everyday I come in, I love my job, I love the people. The people here are number one. We’re all about community.”
Moustafi makes a chimichanga with a base of two sauces — a green chile sauce made from poblanos and a red sauce with Santa Cruz red chiles. Next, it’s topped with pico de gallo, guacamole, and cheese sauce with fresh Anaheim chiles. The crispy shell gives way to a generous portion of beef, Spanish rice, and black beans.
Head baker Nick Carson says his favorite dessert to make is the gluten-free triple chocolate mousse dessert — it’s a cocoa cake filled with chocolate mousse and creme de cacao, then coated in a dark chocolate ganache and white chocolate drizzle. The fudgy exterior and creamy inside are absolutely decadent.
“He came to a Christmas party and brought me pastries,” Schneider said of Carson, “and I thought, this kid needs to be cooking professionally. We’ve slowly been working together over the past almost 2 years. He’s phenomenal.”
La Cocina is located at 201 N. Court Ave. For more information, visit lacocinatucson.com.