Pit Stop

Holy Molé: Tucson’s Mexican Food with a Kick

Little Cafe Poca Cosa may not be as grand as its upscale sister restaurant, but it has plenty of character, complete with loud music, bold flavors, hugs, and a kick-ass molé sauce.

Michael Stern

Chef Suzana Davila’s Cafe Poca Cosa is the best restaurant in Tucson. It may also be the best Mexican restaurant in the U.S., if you are willing to allow that nothing Suzana serves is typical Mexican cuisine. Every dish that comes out of her kitchen is inventive and original—Mexican in their ingredients, techniques, and basic constructs (molés, pastels de elote, carne asadas), but unique. Hers are spectacular meals—salads, sides, and entrées all beautifully crowded together on a large plate—abstract expressionist cuisine. The only problem: it’s high-end fare, for sure; a meal for two, with drinks, easily approaches triple digit prices.

As much as we love Suzana's place, you are more likely to find us dining at Little Cafe Poca Cosa, a much more affordable sister restaurant just down the street. It is, in fact, run by Suzana's sister Sandra. The food here also is delicious and imaginative, but the ambience is 180-degrees different. Whereas big Poca Cosa is cool and stylish, with a black-clad staff and waitresses in short skirts that show yards of well-groomed leg, Little Cafe Poca Cosa is loud and colorful, a party-time ambience famous for music that is always a bit too loud. Sandra herself is a rarity. When we stop in one day for lunch, she shows off her belt/holster that’s made of javelina and includes a scabbard for a knife she "uses all day, for everything." Its handle, she notes, was made from a mesquite tree in her back yard. Regular customers throughout the city know to wave at Sandra when she goes rumbling past on her Harley-Davidson.

Little Poca Cosa is open for breakfast and lunch, and one of its specialties is juice – incredible juice, like one amazing refresher that’s extracted from beets, mandarin oranges, lemons, and limes. At breakfast you can dine on handsome huevos rancheros, the eggs enveloped in vivid red chili sauce and accompanied by rice, lettuce, and a brace of fruit: pineapple, strawberries, and watermelon. Or start the day with huevos Mexicanos scrambled with tomatoes, onions, and chilies, or machaca con huevo, which mixes moist shreds of beef with bits of green chilies in a veil of scrambled egg.

When gazpacho is on the blackboard menu at lunch, it's a must. Sandra tells us she makes it with roasted poblano chilies and roasted tomatoes. When we scoop up a cool spoonful and audibly swoon at its smoky vegetable intensity, she reveals that her secret is to leave the peel on the roasted peppers. "To me," she says, "the burnt part of the skin is what has all the good flavor."

Another blackboard special not to be missed is chipotle pork – tender little chunks in sauce that is hot and yet somehow gentle on the tongue. There’s also a pork dish in which the meat is shredded and simmered in an achiato berry sauce. It is sweet and luscious with a subtle citrus twist. Sandra suggests that we bring the flavor to full blossom by squeezing on a few drops of fresh lime juice from the halves provided with the dish.

Little Cafe Poca Cosa is a restaurant where vegetarians can eat very well. We rarely can resist at least one order of the tamale de elote – a souffle-like swirl of corn meal, sweet corn, green chilies, and cheese steamed to comforting warmth inside a cornhusk. Chile relleno is another meatless meal, served in a mild salsa ranchero redolent of tomatoes. Vegans with big appetites will want to know about the "Gigantic Vegan Tostada," which features a great spill of pinto beans and seasonal vegetables atop a broad fried corn tortilla. Salsa ranchero comes on the side.

As at the fancy Poca Cosa, molés here are sensational. A thick mix of bittersweet chocolate, red chilies, ground peanuts, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds becomes a lush, syrupy molé negro that is dazzling on a chicken breast, or as part of a platter of cheese-stuffed quesadillas.

Those who have a hard time deciding what to choose from the endlessly inviting menu can ask for the Plato Poca Cosa, aka Surprise Plate. You get three items off the menu – "whatever the gals in the kitchen feel like giving you." No two Surprise Plates are alike.

Little Cafe Poca Cosa has its own way of doing everything. It has no phone number and no website. Reservations are not accepted. Business is cash only. Customers who come for take-out are strongly encouraged to bring their own plates and containers. A large blackboard in the dining room lists the various charities and good causes in Tucson and south of the border to which customers' donations are given: an elementary school, an orphanage, a children's breakfast program, a girl who needs an operation. Nearly every regular customer is greeted with a hug; and even if you are a stranger, don't be surprised if Sandra hugs you, too.

"What you're feeling goes into your food," she told reporter Lisa Levine. "I know I can count on at least 150 hugs a day. That goes into our cooking."

Little Cafe Poca Cosa: 151 N. Stone Ave., Tucson, AZ