Cafe Poca Cosa - Tucson, Arizona

Cafe Poca Cosa
100 E. Pennington St.
Tucson, AZ 85701
No website

Date of Visit: Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Time: Dinner - 6:30 PM
Waiter: Aaron
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 8
Service: 7
Ambiance: 7

I invited an old friend and former co-worker, GB, to dine with me. He lives in Tucson and had never tried the place. It is a pretty place oddly located downtown at the base of a parking garage, and they do validate - but it's a needlessly complex process. The menu changes twice daily based on the availability of ingredients and the mood of the chef. So the menus are written on blackboards and easels which are explained table side by the server. The descriptions are detailed, verbal, and fast. There is no website for reference (it would be a pain to maintain), and I had no camera or recording device. So my normally detailed descriptions of the food are rendered brief by the limitations of my memory.

The Menu...
Cafe Poca Cosa has 3-4 chicken dishes, 3-4 beef dishes, 2-3 fish dishes, and 1-2 vegetarian dishes for each service. For our evening there were 4 chicken, 3 beef, 2 fish (one already sold out), and one vegetarian. The names of each dish are in Spanish, and most of the terms are outside my range of "menu Spanish." Prices range from $16-$22 and all include family style whole pinto beans, white rice, and corn tortillas (unless you request flour), and each entree comes with a very large salad heaped onto the plate. Spicy oil and vinegar dressing is on the table and very tasty. Nothing is very spicy-hot, but plenty of flavorful spices are combined to make each dish unique. It's hard to decide, and for $24 the chef will select three entrees for you in a sampler plate - one chicken, one beef, and one vegetarian. If two at the same table order the sampler, there will be six unique choices.

Upon entering we were immediately greeted by a friendly and cheerful hostess along with another lady who seems to run the front of the house - I call her the Mamacita. They were genuinely happy to see us, and asked if we needed to get dinner "before the show." When I replied in the negative, Mamacita clapped me on the back and exclaimed, "No problem then!" I asked what show we were missing, and was happy to hear we were missing Michael Buble. We found seats at the bar and dismissed the fancy Tequilas, Martinis, and Margaritas in favor of a couple of honest bottles of Negra Modelo. GB had never tried one, and he found it to be most excellent. The room was very modern, decorated with a variety of paintings, photos, and sculptures artfully lit with xenon droplights. The oval bar was a central feature with the kitchen behind and maybe 40 tables around in a C pattern. A handful of tables were outside on a small patio, for the smokers. One Zagat member referred to the arrangement as an "ultra-modernized Denny's." GB and I found the description to be unkind and unfair.

After a short wait (10 minutes) the hostess came back and asked us to settle the bar tab, and then she could take us to our table. Five minutes later we were seated at a nice table near the front door. The bus staff provided water, salsa, and a saucer with a few tortilla chips immediately. Seconds later Aaron stopped by and introduced himself as our server. He was very tall, very dark and had very long baby-dreadlocks tied neatly into a ponytail. Like everyone else we'd seen (including the bartender) he seemed very pleased to have us as guests and very concerned for our comfort and satiety. He noted that our beers were nearly full and promised to return shortly with a menu.

Aaron soon returned with an easel and blackboard, and explained each entree to us from memory in flawless Spanish followed by an English translation. Every item sounded fantastic. Gus went with the beef in tomatillo sauce, and I was tempted by the chicken mole. But I opted to go with the Poca Cosa sampler and let the chef decide. At least half an hour passed by as we conversed and observed the frenetic activity of this very busy place. The tiny pile of chips was quickly exhausted with the fresh salsa - tasty, not sweet, not hot, and blended into almost a paste. GB wondered why we couldn't get more chips. Having visited the place once before, I suggested they were sparing us from overfilling before the coming bounty. After dinner, he saw the wisdom in their stinginess.

What we had for dinner...
My dinner sampler came with beef with amarillo sauce, chicken with ancho cream sauce, and the vegetarian tamale pie. GB had an enormous portion of beef with tomatillo sauce. Both plates were piled high with salad greens, and all the side dishes (family style) and tortilla stack were generous. I sampled GB's entree as well as my own, and it was the hands-down winner of the four. He commented several times at how tender the beef was, and the flavor combo was excellent. My beef was also tender and tasty, just not as brilliant as GB's. My chicken was the best of my three portions, and the chef must have agreed - it was the biggest of the three. The masa in the tamale pie was sweet, grainy, and covered with cheese. Very good, but my least favorite. Salad (dressing on the table) and sides were very fresh and good.

GB and I are generally big eaters, and both of us plowed in with gusto. When we were done, both had salad remaining (they provide a LARGE portion), and we did not kill off any of the side dishes completely. Both too full for dessert or coffee, we paid the very reasonable tab ($54) with a very good tip, and rolled out the door.

Highs: Friendly staff, service, pretty room, activity, food quality and attention to preparation
Lows: Having to deal with the bar tab separately, long wait for main courses

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

The Feast - Tucson, Arizona

Feast Restaurant
4122 E Speedway
Tucson, AZ 85712

Date of Visit: Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:30 PM
Waitress: Lydia R.
Number of Diners: 1

Food Quality: 9
Service: 5
Ambiance: 6

What I had with menu descriptions...

Mixed Green Salad with Creamy Roasted Shallot Dressing. $3.75
Lovely mix of fresh, sweet, and bitter greens with delicious dressing.
Riesling Chicken $15.25 - Riesling-braised breast of chicken with Crimini mushrooms and pancetta, accompanied by garlic-roasted fingerling potatoes and sauteed asparagus.
Ice Cream We Made Here - Passion Fruit $5.00
Numi Gunpowder Green Tea (hot) $2.50
2003 Nicolas Joly 'Les Clos Sacrés' Savennières Chenin Blanc
Wine by the Glass special of the day (white) - $38.00 bottle, $9.00 glass (I had two glasses)

The restaurant is medium small, maybe 30 small tables (for 2 or 4), which could be bunched for larger parties (all but 2 occupied), and a bar with seats for 6 or 8 (all empty). There was a birthday group there, and they were having a great time. Parking was at a premium. Like most places, it was a little too noisy with poor acoustics. Tables were spartan, clean and perfectly adequate. A friendly hostess seated me at a window table for two inn the corner. I sat with my back to the room until after the pretty but blinding sunset, and then switched to the other chair to see the whole room. The space was tidy, crowded but not cramped, minimally decorated, and functional. The bus-person quickly poured water, and shortly after the waitress dropped off a very large wine list and a very small menu.

Having done some research on Zagat, I was ready for both. There were at least a dozen reds and another dozen whites available by the glass - all decent and reasonably priced. And there was an encouragement to ask your server about the glass wine special of the day. The appetizers, salads, and entrees were all described in detail. There were several vegetarian choices, and most things could be prepared gluten-free. I love a good garden salad, and went with that for my fiber needs. Dinner choices were lamb, beef, chicken, salmon, beet, and a few others. The choices were few, and one could see from the descriptions the care taken to prepare them well.

The waitress was young, petite, dark-haired, fair skinned, and freckled. She was polite and efficient, though not overly friendly. She never disclosed her name, but it was on the check. I commented that the menu was impressive, and she informed me about the special (shrimp in a burre blanc sauce) and the soup (lentil). I said the chicken was calling to me, and she affirmed it as a great choice. I asked about the special wine by the glass. "Red or white?" I answered "White," and she looked over her shoulder. "Um, not sure the name of it, but it's a French Chenin Blanc and it's $7." I was contemplating a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at $7.50, so that seemed like a better deal. It was delicious and amazing. Cool, crisp, dry, delicate - with a slight dusty gravel flavor that reeked of its terrior. In a GOOD way. When I got the bill I found that it was $9 and not $7, but it was so good that I uncharacteristically didn't complain.

Wine and salad came promptly. I finished the salad and lingered over the wine. Entree was maybe 20 minutes later, a couple of minutes after I finished my first wine glass. No bread was served - to me or anyone else. Second glass arrived a few minutes after I started my entree. The waitress was giving me only the minimum attention to barely get the job done, which sadly is the norm for chubby, balding men who dine alone. The chicken, mushrooms, pancetta, and wine sauce all came together in a concert of complementary flavor. Outstanding. The asparagus was perfectly prepared, and the potatoes were sliced into disks, which were easily mashed to soak up the phenomenal white wine sauce. It was like the best chicken pot pie you ever had, sans carrots and crust.

I noticed that the chef/owner came frequently into the dining room, chatting to regulars and eagerly seeking feedback on their meals. He also bussed dirty dishes, refilled water, and rearranged chairs whenever he saw a need. It was a pleasure to see a head chef concerned more with the perfection of the customer experience than the propriety of his position. Conversations were natural, and not "movie star."

Dessert options were interesting, and I followed the lead of a neighboring table and ordered the homemade passion fruit ice cream. Coffee would overwhelm the flavor, so I went with hot green tea. The ice cream was delightful and the tea pairing was genius, if I do say so myself!

Bill came fairly promptly and included a detailed description of an upcoming special wine dinner for May 5. Looked interesting except for the licorice meatballs. For minimal service I generally tip 12-15%, but I allowed an extra 5% for being a single.

Highs: Fresh ingredients carefully prepared with innovative combinations, good wines available, all reasonably priced
Lows: Time gap between salad and entree, slow refills on wine & water, no bread, service minimal and not friendly, error on glass wine price

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego