11 October, 2019, 00:52

Internationally acclaimed Tucson restaurant Cafe Poca Cosa remains fresh & local after 33 years

Three decades (and counting) of unique recipes and global recognition.

As Cafe Poca Cosa owner-executive chef Suzana Davila made her way through her crowded restaurant recently, greeting customers at their tables, a patron looked up from a generous serving of Pescado Costeño, smiled broadly, reached into his pocket, withdrew a heavily-creased paper, and asked, “Do you know what this is?” Before Davila could respond, he laughed aloud and answered his own question: “It’s that magazine article about your restaurant!”

The article he held was from an internationally distributed travel journal featuring gourmet cuisine. It was over 10-years old. The customer explained with audible delight that he had held on to the clipping all this time in hopes that he could eventually visit Tucson and experience Cafe Poca Cosa himself. “And I made it!” he exclaimed.

Global visitors seek out the restaurant

“Even I find it hard to believe,” Davila said with a modest nod, “but this kind of thing happens all the time.”

Given the widespread acclaim the restaurant has attracted over its three-decade life, visitors regularly arrive from Europe, Asia, South America, and other locations around the globe — all wanting to sample the unique recipes, dine in the beautiful space, and always — to meet the owner/chef.

Facade at Cafe Poca Cosa (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Suzana Davila’s creation reflects her energy

Over the last three decades, Cafe Poca Cosa has become one of Tucson’s most iconic restaurants.

Yet anyone suspecting that Cafe Poca Cosa might now rest on its reputational laurels does not know Suzana Davila, the very embodiment of creative energy. Keeping up with her is as futile as trying to bottle motion.

Davila personally oversees Poca Cosa’s multifarious menu — one that changes at least twice daily, with entrees listed in Spanish. She supervises activity in both the front and back of the restaurant, greets guests, and precisely checks, then rechecks, every detail.

This is Suzana Davila’s restaurant — her creation, her passion. She describes the experienced, well-trained Cafe Poca Cosa staff as “the team,” and she is the team leader. This self-acknowledged perfectionist is the boss.

Cafe Poca Cosa owner and chef Suzana Davila (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Cafe Poca Cosa owner and chef Suzana Davila (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Loyal staff

And the members of her team — given good wages, benefits, and working conditions, including generous holiday time to spend with family — are, and remain, loyal.

Former staff from 20 and 25 years ago return regularly for hugs, to reminisce, and, of course, to eat.

Davila turned to cooking

While she grew up near San Carlos, in Guaymas, Sonora, in a food-loving family (her father, Luis Davila, owned a drive-in restaurant), Davila moved to Tucson at age 15 with intentions to be a fashion model or interior decorator. But her life took a somewhat different direction in 1986 when she began applying her creative skills to cooking – she opened a tiny, six-table cafe behind the courthouse on Scott Avenue, south of Congress Street.

“Back then, stores and restaurants were closing in downtown Tucson, and people told me I was crazy to open something new here,” she said.

She began by introducing luncheon food to construction workers and word spread rapidly about her ingenious menu.

“This was not the Mexican cooking we all knew,” said one retired courthouse employee, remembering his introduction to Suzana’s dishes. “This was something new and special. Exceptional.”

Soon there were lines down the sidewalk at lunchtime and the courts’ judges started sending their staff next door to bring back containers of food.

Scratch-made dishes written on a blackboard

From the start, there were no printed menus. Suzana served dishes she created from scratch with what was fresh, locally produced, and available each day.

The daily entrees were written on a blackboard, erased when patrons consumed all that was available from the tiny kitchen and replaced with something else, equally fresh and delicious. Nothing frozen was used, so, from the start, there was no freezer.

And today, 33 years later, while in a new, expansive, chic location, Cafe Poca Cosa still lists its daily offerings (lunch, dinner) on chalkboards. And there is still no freezer in the kitchen.

Menu favorites

While regular customers have usually identified one or two favorite entrees (the popular vegetarian Tamale Pie appears with regularity), there has always been something either entirely new or an item that sounds familiar but is made with a special twist, with new flavors.

“One of the absolute delights in dining there,” said one long-time customer, “is constant surprise. Discovering new things on the Poca Cosa blackboard is like being a kid on Christmas morning.”

To intensify the surprise factor — as well as to allow guests to experience the flavors of more than a single entree — Davila invented an offering she calls “Plato Poca Cosa,” portions of three dishes among the daily offerings, each chosen by the chef.

Plato Poca Cosa quickly became the most popular choice on every daily menu.

Plato Poca Cosa at Cafe Poca Cosa owner (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Plato Poca Cosa at Cafe Poca Cosa owner (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Change of location

Within three years of opening, Davila’s restaurant had outgrown the tiny location, and she was quick to accept an offer to move into an expansive first-floor space in the Santa Rita Hotel, a block away, on Broadway Boulevard.

Her father, who had joined her in the small kitchen awhile earlier, stayed on at the Scott Street space, then dubbed “Little Poca Cosa.”

Years later it, too, moved — to Stone Avenue — and was renamed, more simply The Little One. Run now by Suzana’s two sisters, Sandra and Marcella, “The Little One” serves breakfast and lunch in a homey setting just north of Tucson’s Valdez Public Library.

Sandra Davila, Belen Barley, and Marcela Davila-Barley at the Little One (Credit: Wren Awry)

Sandra Davila, Belen Barley, and Marcela Davila-Barley at the Little One (Credit: Wren Awry)

A chance to unleash creativity

A second major move for the principal Cafe Poca Cosa was precipitated by downtown renewal. The Santa Rita Hotel was demolished in 2005 to make way for the modern office headquarters of Tucson Electric Power, and Davila reopened in a new, permanent space on Pennington Street.

This second move offered the ever-creative restaurant owner an opportunity to design an interior space she had always imagined. While a few regular customers bemoaned the loss of the old, funkier digs, patrons were soon wowed by new, posh surroundings, closely mirroring the eclectic-but-refined aesthetic of the restaurant’s founder.

A sweeping, modish bar — staffed by Davila’s son, Christopher Stockstill-Davila — dominates the central space, surrounded in three directions (including an outdoor patio) by tables, small and large, clustered to produce a surprising sense of intimacy in what is, in fact, an expansive dining area.

Interior at Cafe Poca Cosa (Credit: Jackie Tran)

A visual delight

The owner insists on repainting interior walls during the month each summer when the restaurant closes. “My family says that a sure sign I’m getting older,” Davila laughs, “is that the new colors I’ve chosen recently are much softer, earthier, more mellow” (in contrast to the bright red, green, and yellow walls of past years).

The restaurant’s artful surroundings suit the presentation of Cafe Poca Cosa’s food with precision; eating there is as much a visual as a gustatory experience.

Every aesthetic detail here is intentional — from the beautiful restaurant interior to the owner’s always-elegant attire to the presentation of every plate of food.

Interior at Cafe Poca Cosa (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Imaginative plates with generous portions

Each lunch or dinner platter is an imaginative, alluring gift of entree, fresh vegetables, and colorful fruit. (We have observed that the initial instinct of many patrons — before tasting — is to use their cell phone cameras to photograph the table’s lovely, arriving platters.)

Accompanying each entree are side dishes of beans and of rice, plus a stack of warm tortillas — altogether a bounteous portion of ethereal cuisine. Fortunately, take-home containers are readily offered to diners unable to consume all that is served.

While one is tempted to simply chuckle when Poca Cosa waitstaff offer desserts following such a substantial meal, it is recommended that guests (who are able) sample the restaurant’s array of exceptional sweets.

Shanali Davila, resident baker

Cafe Poca Cosa’s pastry chef is Shanali Davila, Suzana’s daughter, who, over the past decade-plus, has achieved a reputation as an extraordinarily accomplished baker.

Her mother’s description of Shanali’s chocolate cake as “to die for,” is barely hyperbole. This rich dessert is a deeply dark ambrosia — velvety sweet and just-out-of-the-oven moist: worthy of its own take-home container.

Yet, Shanali’s true specialty is something a bit more bite-sized: cupcakes.

Her repertoire now includes cupcakes of over 200 flavors, most vegan. Describing herself as “born to bake,” the younger Davila has run her own business, Cup Quequitos, since 2010. (Orders can be made online.)

Mole — that heavenly Mexican sauce

A favorite entree at Cafe Poca Coca has always been the Mole Negro, which, lucky for its many fans, shows up with some frequency on the restaurant’s chalkboard. Also known as Mole Poblano, the dish originated in the Mexican state of Puebla.

While it may sound reasonably simple (what? chocolate covered chicken?), this mole is, in fact, an especially complex dish with an extensive number of ingredients — including roasted almonds, sesame seeds, sweet brown sugar, cloves, cinnamon, and seven burgundy chiles. And, yes, the Mole Negro does include Mexican dark chocolate, although the executive chef is quick to note that, contrary to general belief, not all moles contain chocolate. (Davila’s own repertoire now includes nearly two dozen different moles.)

Chicken mole on the patio at Cafe Poca Cosa (Credit: Cafe Poca Cosa)

Chicken mole on the patio at Cafe Poca Cosa (Credit: Cafe Poca Cosa)

The secret ingredient

When asked the “secret” to her many uniquely exquisite dishes, Cafe Poca Cosa’s proprietor replied with undisguised delight, “the sauces!”

Unfortunately, that single word, sauce, cannot capture true culinary magic. These are hardly standard home kitchen sauces of flour, salt, and canned milk. Davila’s are sauces of multiple, carefully chosen spices, a diversity of seeds, and subtle measures of native herbs.

She reminds us that the derivation of “mole,” in Spanish, is “para moler” — to grind — and explains that there is a multitude of ground ingredients in each sauce (both those invented in her kitchen and ones adapted from the food she has tasted on her trips throughout the world).

As an example, she notes that when she visits Mexico City, as she often does, “I always make new food discoveries. I learn from them all.” She then adds with a wink, “I like change; I like to be ahead of the game.”

Exceptional dishes to look out for

If one is lucky, one’s Plato Poca Cosa may include Asada Tomatillo con Chile Guero y Nopalitos — tender, marinated and grilled skirt steak in a tangy salsa, reduced with sea salt, Mexican oregano, cilantro sprigs, sautéed prickly pear cactus pads, and chile guero — producing a crisp, yet not-fiery, spiciness.

Another beloved Davila dish is Lomo de Puerco en Adobo con Ciruela y Tosino — loin of pork with adobo, topped by a luscious plum-bacon sauce. The chef starts with tender pork loin, simmered for over six hours. The pork is then presented in a rich reduction of ancho and mulato chiles, known for their hints of smoked, dried cherry — intensifying the resulting sauce. Stewed plums and bacon round out this flavorful dish, complete with a delicate hint of tobacco.

Plato Poca Cosa at Cafe Poca Cosa owner (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Plato Poca Cosa at Cafe Poca Cosa owner (Credit: Jackie Tran)

There’s a catch (from the sea)

Paying tribute to Suzana’s childhood near a seaport, the restaurant usually offers at least one seafood entree. One of the most popular is Pescado con Lentejas — cod fillets with lentils. It is a dish with earthy, almost Old World quality. The fresh fish fillets are lightly dusted in flour and pan seared, then bathed in an aromatic, crushed garlic broth containing lentils, caramelized onions, sea salt, bay leaves, roasted green chiles, lemon juice, Mexican oregano, and cilantro.

Vegans and vegetarians welcome

Vegetarians, including vegans, are warmly welcomed at Cafe Poca Cosa, with daily offerings suited to their special diets. Among the most popular is Pastel de Elote en Crema Pimiento Morron y Elote, a sweet corn masa slowly baked with mild white cheese.

The dish is finished with a velvety red bell pepper cream sauce that includes tasty, fire-roasted corn kernels. It is a delightfully savory, albeit mild, dish that is notably responsible for making Cafe Poca Cosa devotees of many local vegetarians.

Future plans do not involve relaxing on a beach

For many restaurant owners, 33 years may seem a long enough run, but there is no retirement in Suzana Davila’s immediate plans, despite having family experienced and capable of taking the reins should she choose to spend more time traveling, painting, or, at last, writing the Poca Cosa cookbook she has been urged so many times to publish. “How could I not stay involved here?” she asked rhetorically. “Other than my family, this is what I love most.”

We ask what more she still has to accomplish. The restaurant is enormously successful, locally beloved, and internationally acclaimed as a truly unique culinary home of exceptional, creative food. Its owner has been celebrated as one of the world’s great chefs just as she is widely, albeit unassumingly, acknowledged for the extensive help she provides to those in need — both at home in Tucson and in Latin America.

Surely she has earned a rest. But Suzana is emphatic: “I am not a sit-on-the-beach type.” If there is a welcome-more-guests, train-new-team-members, alter-this-color-motif, and create-a-new-mole-with-rare-chiles type, she is that. And those of us who love singularly remarkable food are certainly the beneficiaries.

Hours and location

Cafe Poca Cosa, located at 110 E. Pennington St., is open from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Take note: the restaurant closes throughout the month of August.

For more information, call (520) 622-6400 or visit cafepocacosatucson.com.

Have a favorite dish from Cafe Poca Cosa? Let us know in the comments.

Max is a Tucson artist, painting colorful, textured abstracts; a writer, and a former non-profit executive. He loves food and sharing it with his wife. Their three dogs eat kibble. Mostly.

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