READERS' PICK: Forget run-of-the-mill Mexican--refried beans, burritos, the whole canned menu you can recite in your sleep. Heck, even forget the mariachis. Isn't there somewhere you can go for exciting, palate-pleasing gourmet food from our southern neighbors without the shtick? YES! Café Poca Cosa is a delight for the senses. Soft lighting greets you as you enter the main dining room. Vibrant art reflecting the popular Dia de los Muertos looks down at you as you enjoy your margarita, salsa and chips. Perhaps you prefer taking your meal in the evening air. You can enjoy your meal on either of the two patio dining areas. An energetic and attentive wait staff presents a menu so inventive that it actually changes twice each day. It includes mouth-watering offerings of chicken, beef, pork, fish, vegetarian creations and even a chef's choice platter of three selections. Family-style beans, rice and tortillas complement the beautifully presented and generously portioned platters. If you've still got the room, a flan to die for or a rich chocolate mousse and coffee will usher you on your way sated, not broke, and happy that you've discovered this gem of a restaurant. This little thing is a big deal.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: El Charro, 311 N. Court Ave. Located in downtown's delightful El Presidio Historic Neighborhood, El Charro is nothing less than a local legend--and for good reason. The restaurant manages to be simultaneously traditional and inventive, with a long list of Mexican standards and unusual twists like the Power Burro, a whole-wheat tortilla filled with beans and rice and topped with nonfat yogurt, salsa de chile verde and fresh tomatoes. The standout dish for carnivores is the carne seca: beef marinated in garlic and lime juice, then dried in a cage above El Charro before it's shredded and grilled with green chiles, tomatoes and onions. This stuff, combined with El Charro's wonderful thin salsa (also voted Best of Tucson), is absolutely addictive. (Fortunately for those of us who are hooked, the salsa is now available by the jar.) El Charro completes its 2000 trifecta with honors for Best Combo Meals, and again deservedly so. Whether you order the Combinación de Carne Seca (a plate so overflowing you're sure to take half home) or any of the various other combinations of tacos, enchiladas, chile rellenos and tamales, you'll have an opportunity to sample some of the finest Mexican food to land on a plate. Besides the sprawling downtown location, El Charro has an eastside branch at 6310 E. Broadway and an airport outlet.