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Courtyard Kitchen 

With a quirky and tasty menu, La Cocina has finally come into its own

From left to right, New Mexico Style Beef Stew, Corn Cakes, and Sweet Potato Enchiladas.

Josh Morgan

From left to right, New Mexico Style Beef Stew, Corn Cakes, and Sweet Potato Enchiladas.

Old Town Artisans is known for some of the neatest shopping in town- crafts from near and far, one-of-a-kind artwork, repurposed garden curios, lovely jewelry, unique clothing ... you get the idea. Located in the historic El Presidio neighborhood, the adobe building itself is more than 150 years old. If you've never been, check it out. Old Town Artisans is a Tucson treasure.

Part of the charm of the place is the courtyard that sits smack dab in the middle of the various shops. Shaded by old olive trees and other well-established foliage, the courtyard is a perfect little spot to rest for a few minutes during your shopping spree. You can even get some pretty good eats, as well.

The house restaurant, La Cocina, has been around for awhile. Late last year, though, the owners hired new managers, who brought with them restaurant smarts and a dedication to serving up good, healthful food.

La Cocina serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. The menu is as eclectic as they come. Items are delineated vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free. The beef is grass-fed and breakfast meats are turkey-based rather than pork-based. There's a small in-the-works wine list and a full assortment of potent potables.

Weekend brunch on the patio is almost a must. It's the best way to enjoy the courtyard. We were there on a Saturday surrounded by what most certainly were out-of-town visitors and nifty garden art. A soloist played laid-back versions of '70s rock classics.

We ordered the corn cakes ($6) with a side of house-made turkey sausage ($2) and the La Cocina GLBT—guacamole, turkey bacon (or tofu), lettuce and tomato—on multigrain bread ($7.50). It came with a choice of red potato salad or cilantro slaw. We went with the potato salad. We also ordered iced coffee ($2.25).

I'm not a big pancake fan, but the three medium-sized cakes were done just the way I like them. They were perfectly thin with a light, toothsome texture thanks to the corn. Maple syrup was a perfect complement (there's also raspberry syrup). I did have to ask for the sausage twice more before it was delivered. By that time the cakes were long gone. The sausage was a little dry and over-seasoned, but certainly would've tasted better had it been paired with bites of the corn cakes.

The sandwich was disappointing, though. A BLT is probably the world's best sandwich when done right. But this version had way too much lettuce, leafy and pretty as it might have been, and not nearly enough turkey bacon, tomato or guacamole. The red potato salad was good, but again there could've been more of it.

In addition to the courtyard, there's a charming little cantina with décor that is best described as little bit hippie chic added to a healthy dose of Mexican beach bar. The tables are metal-topped with Mexican beer logos on wooden bases. The chairs are colored turquoise. Windows allow for a view of the courtyard that twinkles with Christmas lights at night. We ate dinner in there because on the night of our visit it was just too damn cold to eat outside (of course, this meant that tables were at a premium, but that sort of added to the cozy vibe).

It was Tuesday, which is Date Night at La Cocina, complete with specials, half-priced wines and live Latin music.

We sort of went Latin, too. We ordered the sweet potato enchiladas and the New Mexico-style beef stew ($12). We also sampled the hibiscus lemonade ($2.25), which was both sweet and tangy.

But for starters we went retro-American-cocktail-party fare with a twist. The angelic and devilish eggs ($4) consisted of two hard-boiled eggs split open and filled with a creamy, lightly whipped eggyolk mixture. The twist was that one of the eggs had been boiled in beet juice, which rendered it a beautiful, jeweled red tone. The filling in these had a touch of chipotle—hence the "devilish."

The main courses were most satisfying. For the enchiladas, the kitchen filled two corn tortillas with sweet potato mash (we detected a hint of cinnamon) and corn bits and then topped them off with just enough of a tasty tomatillo sauce and a swirl of crema. The side of beans was a simple but perfect addition. Delish!

The stew, as might be expected from New Mexico style, was deep red and thick with grass-feed beef, sweet butternut squash chunks, green chiles and pepitas that provided a nice little crunch. If all those tastes and textures weren't enough, there was a healthy-sized scoop of quinoa plopped right in the middle, and two pieces of tasty cornbread. The stew proved the perfect foil to the chilly winter evening.

We finished off the meal by splitting the flourless chocolate cake ($4.50). It disappeared rather quickly, which tells it all.

At dinner, service was friendly, warm and spot-on; at lunch, maybe not so much. Almost everyone at lunch looked as though it was their first day. Menus were left on the table, food came out of the kitchen and then returned before it even got to the table, no one stopped by to see how we were doing, and worst of all, the drinks were carried to the table by the rim of the glass. It's much safer to hold the glass by the side, plus fingers on the rim are just a turn-off.

La Cocina also offers regular entertainment, everything from bluegrass to Latin to DJs to a retro game show. Check out the website, lacocinatucson.com, for details.

La Cocina seems to be finding a strong fan base, and with good reason. The food is not only delectable but healthful. The vibe is hip and casual, décor funky and chic.

There's live entertainment. Plus great shopping is just steps away. I can't wait to go back.

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