Suzana Davila sits across the table from me. It’s about 11 a.m. on a Thursday and we each have a blank notebook in front of us. While you can guess what mine is for, Davila is actually making the night’s dinner menu for Café Poca Cosa on hers. It starts the same way each day: a blank page in her notebook.
From there, Davila explains the process simply. She thinks of recipes she knows and decides what she wants to make that evening off the top of her head, tweaking if necessary based on the product she has on hand. She’s been doing this for about 30 years in Tucson, every day for lunch and dinner, which speaks to Davila’s boundless and almost intimidating level of energy and enthusiasm.
“When we started, I wanted people to be aware of Mexican food from all regions in Mexico and the only way to do that is to change the menu two times a day,” she says, adding, “which is insane.”
While Davila is the kind of warm personality that can catch non-huggers like me in a genuinely warm embrace on first introduction, she’s also the kind of person who’s constantly pushing—pushing the limits of what people thought Mexican food could be, pushing diners to relinquish control and pushing the downtown community forward in terms of dining and beyond.
“Downtown has totally changed,” Davila says. “It’s been refreshing.”
That change for Davila and her restaurant started after her sisters began running The Little One (formerly Little Café Poca Cosa), which Davila originally opened with her father. At that time, Davila started Cafe Poca Cosa, which moved between a couple locations and eventually landed at her current spot of about 10 years at 110 E. Pennington St. Joined by her son, who runs the bar, and her daughter, who does the pastry, Davila says that through all of the change, there's always been a constant for her.
“It’s really been a family affair ever since we opened,” she says.
Although her original mission to provide authentic Mexican cuisine had a focus on regional diversity, she also says showing Mexican food as more than “beans, some yellow cheese and chopped lettuce” was key. Fresh fruits and vegetables play a central role in her cooking, while acquiring authentic spices and chilies meant making regular trips to Mexico, at least when she first started.
Of course, Davila is most well known for her mole, but even that, she says, is commonly misunderstood as one cacao-based sauce, when really it’s a sauce that differs vastly based on region. Out of everything, Davila says she is most passionate about her fantastic sauces. The secret to those is “like everything, a lot of love.”
“Making sauces gives you the opportunity to really be creative with your tomatoes and be creative with your tomatillos and work with creams and rouxs and spices and chilies,” she says.
In order to communicate her ever-changing menu, Davila relies on her front of house staff, which she speaks of with great respect and admiration. They know the ingredients’ sourcing. They know the dishes’ origins. Many of them are even fluent in Spanish. Davila recognizes that even to this day some guests have trouble trusting the kitchen, but at Café Poca Cosa in particular, you’d be silly not to.
“It’s like going home,” Davila explains. “You don’t ask what’s for lunch—you just eat it.”
One plate in particular is the omakase of Davila’s Mexican fare. The Plato Poca Cosa is a plate of whatever the kitchen feels like giving you.
“Some people really hate the idea of not ordering what they want and this dish tells them to just close their eyes and let us handle it,” she says.
“On that dish, I don’t really care what you have to say. It’s about finding something you didn’t know before,” she continues. “You can either love the mole or hate it, but before coming here you might not even be aware of how many moles there are.”
Worst-case scenario? You try something that you’ve never had before that you don’t totally love, and, really, that isn’t that bad.