You’ll get no air kisses from Suzana Davila. When the chef of Cafe Poca Cosa emerges from the kitchen of her stylish Tucson restaurant and works her way through the tables, greeting regulars and newcomers alike, her longtime customers can expect real lip-to-cheek contact, accompanied by a warm hug.
There’s nothing superficial about her cooking, either. Tell Davila you like one of her 26 moles – the result of intense Mexico-wide searches for ingredients and recipes – and she’ll regale you with its origins in delicious detail. Confide that your favorite carne asada didn’t show up on the daily changing chalkboard menu, and she’ll explain precisely why an essential spice can’t be found this time of year – all in rapid-fire, colloquial English thick with the lilt of her native Guaymas, in northern Mexico.
But she’s not likely to linger talking with you. Davila has relentless energy, devoted to everything from bringing blankets and sacks of rice to displaced families in the fishing villages near Guaymas to overseeing the creation of the latest incarnation of her restaurant, which began as a tiny downtown storefront more than two decades ago. (This initial venture, Little Cafe Poca Cosa, is still open, now run by Davila’s sisters, Sandra and Marcella.) Before she became a chef, Davila worked as a model and interior designer – which helps explain both her personal flair and that of her eye-popping eatery, which balances contemporary sleekness with the warmth and color of Mexico.
Asked where she gets all that juice, Davila laughs and shrugs. “I was always like this. My mother used to call me Vitamin Plus. When she was giving out One-A-Days to the rest of the kids, she'd say, 'I'm going to skip Suzana; she's wired enough.'""
Tucson's Urban Renewal Champion
Davila is also an indefatigable booster for urban renewal; in 2006, she won a “Heart of Downtown Award” for her contributions to the growth and spirit of Tucson’s original center. “I had lots of offers to move to the Foothills when the Clarion [the hotel where Cafe Poca Cosa used to reside] closed, but I’m still hoping that downtown will come back.” Her affection for the old municipal district is clearly reciprocated. Spotting Tucson’s mayor, Bob Walkup, among her lunch patrons, Davila waves to him and confides, “He comes in all the time. He’s a real sweetheart.”
And he clearly knows good food – although, like most people, he might not be able to pin down what makes it so unique. Apart from saying that it’s a far cry from the Americanized, often unhealthy Mexican fare that’s saturating the U.S., and noting that it ranges all over the map of Mexico, Davila’s menu is hard to classify.
Davila herself says that, like many Mexico City chefs, she works in the alta cocina Mexicana tradition, looking to indigenous dishes dating back to Aztec times. One venerable ingredient that she loves is huitlacoche, a rare corn fungus as delicate as French truffles. “Every now and then, I get a call from a Mexican farmer who comes into Tucson and asks if I want some. Of course, I say ‘yes,’” she enthuses.
“Raw huitlacoche looks like mud,” she adds, “but stuff it in a chicken breast with some fresh Oaxacan cheese...” She jumps up, interrupting herself, “Sorry, I need to check on the flan in the kitchen.” And she’s off.
Recipe: Roasted Poblanos stuffed with Cabrilla
- 4 poblano chiles
- 1 lb cabrilla (sea bass)
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 1 medium onion
- 2 tbsp. Mexican oregano
- 2 pints cherry tomatoes
- 4 whole bay leaves
- ½ cup olive oil
- ½ cup of fish or chicken stock
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 lemon
- Pinch or to taste salt
- Pinch or to taste pepper
Roast the poblanos, let them cool, then cut about 1½-inch slits down the middle and remove the seed pack. Make sure that you don’t cut the poblanos from end to end so they don’t tear all the way open.
Roast the cherry tomatoes and garlic cloves. (If you don’t have a gas range, you can roast the chilies, tomatoes and garlic over a grill. Also, you can skewer the tomatoes and garlic together and roast, so you don’t lose any down the grill, or stove.)
Wash, pat dry and finely chop the cilantro. Reserve ¼ of the bunch of cilantro for the sauce. Finely chop the onion. Finely chop two cloves of garlic, leave the three others for later.
In a sauté pan, add olive oil and onions. Add a pinch of salt to the pan, and sweat out the onions. Sauté onions until soft. Add chopped garlic, whole bay leaves and oregano.
Next, add the fish, a bit more salt, and add some pepper. You’re going to have to help it along, and break it up. Cook until the fish has fallen apart, and it’s “shredded.”
In a blender, add the remainder of the cilantro and two more garlic cloves to the fish or chicken stock. Blend until smooth.
Add sauce to the fish, and warm through. You may need to add more salt or pepper at this stage, just to taste, and remove the bay leaves. Add one pint of the roasted cherry tomatoes and squeeze the lemon over the fish.
Stuff the poblanos.
Add the remaining pint of roasted cherry tomatoes to a blender, with a pinch of salt, pepper and the last garlic clove. Blend until smooth. Pour over the stuffed poblanos, and serve.
(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism – 2009)