READERS' PICK: Perhaps elegance is derived in the overlap between the expected and unexpected, where what we know and what we wish for come together. This is the essence of Café Poca Cosa. Three dining areas -- elevated, main floor and outside patio -- each afford a broad view of the restaurant, which is decorated with dark yet vibrant barrio colors, passionate art works, and the strikingly cheerful visages of a host of skeletal celebrants depicting the popular Día de los Muertos holiday. A modified curtain wall mixes natural light into the cool and sparingly lit interior. Outside is another world: flowering plants, fountain, shade umbrellas and twinkling garden lights.
Chips and an inspired salsa begin the festivities. Add a margarita or a glass of fresh juice from a rotating schedule of delights -- try watermelon with basil leaves, or an icy glass of jamaica (a refreshing hibiscus elixir).
The waitstaff is always at your service, but never at your expense. They are impersonal in a well-mannered way, efficient and richly accented in their oration of the day's menu. (See Best Crazy Combo Plate, page 72.) For those who require stability, things to count on are savory whole beans in their own broth, fragrant rice, and steamy corn tortillas. These come family-style with every order, in generous bowls to pass 'round the table.
Rich, hot coffee, traditional flan, and a goblet of mousse cap off the evening's offerings. Don't let any fine-dining etiquette prevent you from taking home your leftovers. They're hot stuff, even cold.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: El Charro Café, 311 N. Court Ave.; 6310 E. Broadway Blvd. At its original location, nestled in downtown's lovely El Presidio neighborhood, El Charro has been serving Mexican food for more than three-quarters of a century. The rambling interior, decorated with a range of Mexican folk art, is elegant yet casual, with several rooms, a porch, a basement and a stunning patio offering a sense of intimacy in a restaurant that's often packed with hundreds of people on weekend nights. Start or conclude the evening with a cocktail in Bar Toma, a stylish collection of comfortable sitting rooms that will leave you feeling like a big-city sophisticate. ¡Muy elegante!