The sign in front still reads Brundog's/Cocina de Gabby—but once inside, it's obvious that this little joint is now simply La Cocina de Gabby.
Late last year, Tom and Marty Brunner—the folks who owned and operated the well-loved Brundog's, and before that, Capriccio's—partnered with Gabrielle and Francisco Martinez. The idea was to feature both Cajun food and Gabby's Mexico City dishes. But around the first of the year, the focus became all-Mexican.
Francisco is the front man, and his excitement about his wife's food is contagious. He explains how they roast all of the peppers they use, and why the salsa has that certain flavor (it's those roasted chiles), and how bistec Milanese ($12.49) is street food in Mexico City, and how even the buñuelos ($3) are made to order.
Gabby works the kitchen. We didn't get to meet her, though—because just about everything, from the tortilla chips to dessert, is made to order.
Hot-out-of-the-fryer tortilla chips were at the table almost immediately. The house salsa was a mix of pureed tomatoes, roasted Japanese chiles, onions and more tomatoes. There was a flavor I couldn't quite identify; according to Francisco, it's the roasted Japanese peppers. (I think there's something else, too—something that's a kitchen secret. I understand.)
Gabby's serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. There's also a separate drive-thru menu with items found at every taqueria in town: burros, tacos, nachos, tortas, etc. However, we skipped the drive-thru and ate inside during a breakfast/lunch visit and again for dinner—we wanted the Mexico City food. (Francisco says that if you want the Mexico City food at the drive-thru, call ahead, and they can probably work something out.)
The dining area is small, and a barroom is off to the side. Brightly colored walls are decorated—mostly with Mexican folk art, although there are a few leftovers from the Brundog era. A big-screen TV hangs unobtrusively in the dining room. There's a nice little patio out front.
We began with chips and guacamole ($4.99). Our entrées were the machaca and eggs ($7.95) and the chile relleno plate ($8.99 for lunch, $12.49 for dinner).
The guacamole was amazingly fresh and chilled, as though the avocado had just been pulled from the refrigerator. The mash was at turns chunky and creamy. We did have to sprinkle in a pinch of salt to bring up the flavor, but the freshness made up for the lack of salt. Gabby's guac is how guac is supposed to taste: Avocado is the front flavor.
There were two golden-brown chiles rellenos, accompanied by rice and beans. The egg coating was a bit thin, but that helped the chiles stand out. The first chile was filled with slightly spicy ground beef. How different and yummy! Francisco told me that if I liked that one, I'd love the second one. It was a bit more traditional—filled with white cheese. Francisco was right: This one was better and simpler. I think the roasting definitely helped add another level of flavor.
The beans and rice were nicely done. The rice was warm and light, the beans creamy and smooth. They were nothing out of the ordinary, but tasty nonetheless.
The machaca and eggs ($7.95) plate was a lovely mess of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, chiles, onions and machaca. Beans and rice were on the side. All that stuff in the "omelet" came together nicely, but there could have been a bit more machaca.
Our dinner consisted of the fish taco plate ($7.99) and the bistec Milanese ($12.49). We also ordered both of Gabby's desserts: buñuelos and flan (each $3).
The two fish tacos were great examples of this entrée; you could actually taste the tender white fish, and the coating was perfectly crisp. The tortillas had been lightly grilled, and a smear of seasoned mayo, along with lots of shredded lettuce and cabbage, finished them off. Of course, there were beans and rice, too. The only thing missing was the gentle lapping of the ocean's waves.
The bistec Milanese was marvelous. The meat—skirt steak, I'd guess—had been pounded as thin as possible, which made it most tender, before being dredged in seasoned bread crumbs and fried. Gabby did a great job of preparing the meat; it was tender, and there was just the right amount of breading. It could've been greasy, but it was not.
On the side were the house beans and rajas. Rajas can be prepared in a number of ways; basic rajas always include poblano chiles and onion strips. Gabby added sweet corn kernels and sour cream; the result resembled a kicked-up creamed corn. We wanted more.
Like rajas, buñuelos mean different things to different people. At Gabby's, the buñuelos are baskets of fried masa triangles, generously covered with cinnamon sugar and then drizzled with a sweet sticky syrup (piloncillo) made from Mexican brown sugar. They contrasted nicely with the cool creaminess of the flan, which is served minus the caramel sauce, which allows the true custard flavor to shine. A bite of bunuelo, a bite of flan ... creamy, crunchy, sweet, smooth. Each dessert on its own was nice, but together, the tastes and textures were in perfect harmony.
Sadly, on both visits, there were never more than a couple of tables occupied, along with maybe several walk-in to-go orders. I drive past the place often, and there are many times when the place doesn't look open. Perhaps some Christmas lights strung around the patio might help. Also, La Cocina de Gabby could use some advertising, especially now that Brundog's is no longer part of the picture.
Tucson offers some of the best Mexican food in the country, but we can get in a Sonoran rut. La Cocina de Gabby offers a perfect alternative: It is both familiar and different.