IN LAURA ESQUIVEL'S novel Like Water for Chocolate, Tita De La Garza channels the passion of her unrequited love into her cooking. The results are by turns magical and delicious, affecting everyone that tastes her extraordinary dishes with emotions ranging from intense longing to giddy hilarity.
Some of the same kind of enchantment permeates Suzana Davila's cooking at Café Poca Cosa, one of Tucson's most celebrated and popular Mexican restaurants.
Davila, a native of Guaymas, Sonora, formerly spent time working as a fashion model and designer. But for at least the last 14 years she has contributed her signature grace and style to the Tucson restaurant scene.
Originally just a bit of a café on South Scott Avenue, Café Poca Cosa has grown into a robust operation across the street from the original location (which still does a knockout weekday breakfast and lunch trade). When the opportunity came about 10 years ago to move her restaurant to the old Santa Rita Hotel, Davila jumped at the chance, coaxing her father out of retirement to run the poquita Poca Cosa.
The rest, as they say, is history. Café Poca Cosa has been listed as a must stop not only in every significant food and travel guide in the United States, but also in journals from locales as far away as Germany and Japan.
During her tenure at the East Broadway restaurant, Davila has rewritten the book on hotel food.
For starters, she has transformed an otherwise neutral space into a slice of Old Mexico, complete with vibrant shades of green and red and an inspired arrangement of plants and Mexican folk art. The main dining room is typically filled to capacity, with the noise level registering in the high decibel range. While this is often a source of irritation at other eateries, at Café Poca Cosa it's one of the pleasures of the restaurant's vitality.
Menus change twice daily, and the selections are noted on a portable chalkboard that servers take from table to table. An English translation of the dishes is written only on the large board at the front entrance, so diners must direct rapt attention to the server's brisk description of the entrees. The difficulty of recalling each detail on the long, complex menu encourages spontaneity when ordering.
Café Poca Cosa's salsa alone could inspire flights of poetic fancy. Pureed and deep crimson, it's an intriguing blend of tomatoes, chiles and garlic almost too extravagant for mere tortilla chips; reserve some as a delicious companion to the rice and whole beans that accompany every entree.
Chicken and beef dishes find ample representation on the menu, joining what are usually single fish and vegetarian items, and occasionally a dish made with pork. Those accustomed to Sonoran-style Mexican cooking will be surprised to find nothing completely familiar on Poca Cosa's menu. Davila specializes more in the cooking of Central Mexico and a lighter cuisine emphasizing subtly complex sauces and lean meat. You'll find no lard, no deep-fried chimichangas, no mountains of gooey cheese here.
The deceptively simple-sounding chicken breast in a mild red chile cream sauce ($13.50) becomes sublime in Davila's capable hands. The boneless, skinless chicken is tender and moist, and the sauce is a miraculous fusion of zesty and creamy.
Davila's legendary moles take on a variety of guises depending on the ingredients and spices available at any one time. Described one night as chicken served in red chile, chocolate and red wine sauce ($14), the mole was perhaps a bit less intense than others I've sampled at Poca Cosa over the years, but nevertheless quite flavorful. The chicken was lusciously suspended in a densely spiced and semi-sweet sauce dusted with sesame seeds. When scooped into a warm, freshly prepared corn tortilla, it made a heavenly dish.
The evening's pièce de résistance proved to be the grilled carne asada served with smoky chipotle pepper, tomato and onion sauce ($15.50). Although billed as "mild," the dish simmered with a sultry heat that asserted itself once in the throat.
The day's tamale pie selections ($11.50) were satisfying but humble. A puree of black beans adorned one variation while another boasted a serrano pesto made with crushed pistachios and basil. The only vegetarian options on the menu, the tamale pies were moist, delicately cheesy and replete with whole corn flavor. A delightful blend of chiles suffused the black bean purée, and the pesto exuded mellow tones of sweet and savory. However, consuming the entire portion of pie was a daunting task. The flavors became redundant, muting the palate to the intricacies of the spicing. We were more fully able to appreciate a smaller square of pie on the chef's choice platter (the chef's selection of any three items on the menu, $17).
Not surprisingly, Poca Cosa's desserts are as exquisite as its entrees. A chocolate mousse -- bittersweet chocolate infused with shavings of cinnamon -- was outstanding, and the cinnamon-suffused flan was the best of its kind anyone among our party had ever tasted. A dense and decadently fudgy chocolate cake was unable to compete with the other two confections.
Service is attentive, and Davila herself circulates throughout the dining room, making sure all of her guests are happy.
Café Poca Cosa is some kind of wonderful in every way.
Café Poca Cosa. 88 E. Broadway Blvd. 622-6400. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Full bar. All major credit cards. Menu items: $6.95-$12.95 for lunch, $11.50-$17 for dinner.