...But La Cocina Needs To Tighten Up Its Service.
By Rebecca Cook
IT'S THE TRIUMVIRATE of food, ambiance and service on which a fine restaurant struts its stuff.
We should count ourselves fortunate that Tucson fields so many entrants into the elite realm of exceptional eateries. The local list is long and constantly expanding as new restaurants appear on the scene and earn their way into a coveted top spot. Not all newcomers, however, are able to attain this lofty station. This is perfectly understandable, perhaps even forgivable, but when the food strains to achieve mediocrity, the service is as slow moving as a glacial thaw and the prices a bit excessive, mercy on the part of the diner becomes extremely strained.
La Cocina, the restaurant space attached to the east side of Old Town Artisans (a popular place for Southwestern kitsch to take to the folks back home in the Midwest), has a built-in clientele. Visitors ogling the extensive Old Town Artisans gallery next door find their way to its patio as if by design; people staying at the nearby Holiday Inn discover a Tucson walking tour leads to these historic doors; and it's a convenient stop by day for downtown business people, and for concert and theatre crowds by night.
A new menu, new chef and spiffy little cantina have given the restaurant a fresh facelift, but La Cocina has been open in one guise or another for several years. By the looks of things, business is brisk--so who cares if the food is merely adequate and it takes forever to get your order? Well, I do.
Dinner on a recent Saturday night was a bustling affair. Several tables had been reserved for the evening, and there was a steady stream of drop-in traffic--a combination that soon had the place completely filled. La Cocina boasts one of the most alluring dining patios in town, and the weather being very mild that night, both indoor and outdoor tables were in full swing.
If the adage about trusting first impressions has any validity, we probably should have taken heed and rescheduled our visit. There was a backup of guests near the front door, and there seemed to be an unfortunate mix-up about dinner reservations for a very large party. After standing aside and watching the resulting flurry for about five to 10 minutes, we were finally attended to.
Although our name was on the reservation list, we had not been assigned a specific table. This necessitated an urgent but hushed conversation between the manager and the hostess, which ended with our being ushered to what can only be referred to as the "ghetto" table of the joint.
Now, every restaurant has some tables that are more auspicious than others. And it's true that someone has to sit at that station over by the kitchen and hallway to the bathroom, but let's face it--we'd rather it wasn't us. Plopped right between the outdoor entrance and a boisterous adjoining room, we had so much traffic whizzing by our table it's a wonder we weren't caught in a tailwind. As it was, the thoroughfare was rife with distractions, not the least of which was my companion's chair, which rocked unsteadily on the half-wood, half-carpet flooring throughout our meal. All told, not the most favorable dining conditions.
Our waiter, who was very pleasant, immediately ascertained that we did not hold tickets to any performance that evening. In retrospect, our confession that we had nowhere else to go may have been a tactical error. The pace at which the meal proceeded was so sluggish that at times we feared we'd been completely forgotten.
About 15 minutes into it, we finally got to order drinks. Twenty minutes after this small consolation, we placed the rest of our order, which was rudely interrupted at one point by a manager telling our waiter that another table wanted their bill. A full 40 minutes later, we saw the Old Town quesadilla ($11.95) we'd ordered as an appetizer.
The grilled, folded tortilla came layered with melted havarti and jack cheeses, a sprinkling of balsamic vinaigrette and mesquite roasted eggplant, red onion and portabella mushrooms. Small scoops of guacamole, sour cream and tomato salsa rounded out this platter. Although the starter was quite tasty (the marinated zing of the vegetables making an excellent match for its soft, mellow cheese), it never impressed enough to justify the price tag. Perhaps the lengthy wait dampened our enthusiasm.
It only took another 10 minutes or so for our salads to appear (La Cocina's house variety is included with entrée orders). With nothing more than some mixed greens, a few slivered carrots, a couple of stale croutons and a wedge or two of unripe tomato, this salad was a real snore. An overly oiled balsamic dressing did little to relieve the tedium. At least the greens were fresh.
Eventually our entrées appeared, along with a basket of bread and some warm garlic and herb-scented olive oil. The bread should have been served even before the appetizers, and now seemed to arrive as an afterthought. The baby back ribs ($16.95) were plentifully piled on my plate, and had a nice slathering of spicy-sweet sauce, but I found them a great deal of effort for very little meat. Some of that comes with the territory of this dish, but add to this a jaw-tiring chewiness and the ribs fizzled entirely. The garlic mashed potatoes accompanying them were quite tasty, if a bit lumpy.
The tequila achiote prawns ($16.95) looked suspiciously like your basic large Guaymas shrimp. Spicy enough to coax beads of sweat, the prawns/shrimp were tender, mesquite grilled and imparted only the faintest suggestion of musky achiote seed and tequila. Roasted red potatoes modestly completed the platter.
Dessert, which not surprisingly was an ordeal to procure, was also a disappointment. We opted for the chocolate, pecan and bourbon torte ($6.25), which had, like the rest of the evening, its ups and downs. The center of the small cake was filled with lusciously melted dark chocolate, but the margins, which resembled a dense shortbread, were unduly dry. The toasted goodness of the bourbon-caramel sauce put some moisture back into the cake, but was too sparse to complement every bite.
More than two and a half hours after we'd first entered the restaurant, we departed filled but frustrated.
Sorry to say, the next visit proved even more disastrous. This time we pulled up a chair at the casual and colorful Two Micks Cantina and Grill, which is housed in a separate building just off the central patio. Essentially a bar with a short inventory of tables, Two Micks notably offers the same menu as La Cocina, as well as a Happy Hour special of steamed shrimp for only $3 (the only bargain we could discern in the place). The small space was humming this Sunday afternoon, and the bartender--who not only seemed to be preparing drinks for both enterprises, but was also the cantina's only designated waiter--was congenial but clearly overwhelmed.
We tried small cups of the black bean chile ($3.75) and the chicken tortilla soup ($4.25), finding both mostly satisfactory. The black bean chili was simple and direct, a pleasant mash of the purplish beans, some garlic and a handful of piquant spices, further enhanced by the addition of raw, chopped red onion. The chicken tortilla soup offered a spicy blend of green chile, tomato, onion, fried corn tortilla strips and bits of chicken.
We'd planned to enjoy the wrap ($7.25), which turned out to be a rolled flour tortilla filled with bland Caesar salad and a meager portion of supposedly marinated chicken, along with a grilled salmon tostada, which intrigued with its promise of an accompanying strawberry salsa. After waiting over an hour, however, the wrap was the only item to appear. The waiter misunderstood my order as a salmon salad, and when the order was re-entered it disappeared altogether. I never did get to try the tostada. We decided to cut our losses and share the wrap.
Our bartender/waiter was most apologetic, and in fact insisted on picking up our tab entirely--further insisting that all he wanted was for us to be willing to come back another day.
I might, although the prospect doesn't thrill me. If I were an out-of-town visitor, I'd probably chalk up the experience to yet another touristy bistro and forget about it. But I happen to live here, and if La Cocina wants to entice locals into becoming regular customers, they're simply going to have to do better.
La Cocina. 201 N. Court Ave. 622-0351. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner is served from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Menu items: $3.75-$16.95.
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