Cafe Poca Cosa
100 E. Pennington St.
Tucson, AZ 85701
Date of Visit: Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Time: Dinner - 6:30 PM
Number of Diners: 2
Food Quality: 8
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.
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