Yaya Yeah

One of Tucson's newest Mexican restaurants features low prices, delicious salsa and an unusually early closing time.

People often ask how I decide what restaurants to review. There are three principal ways: I stumble across them; I hear about them through word of mouth; or the restaurants ask me to review them.

The latter is what led to me visiting Cocoyaya on a recent Friday evening. The owner had e-mailed me and requested a review a few weeks back, so I arranged to meet my friend Rene at 8 p.m. at the restaurant, located in the shopping center at the southeast intersection of Fort Lowell and Country Club roads.

I am generally on time to things, and in fact, I arrived about five minutes early. Rene generally runs a few minutes late, and in fact, he showed up about 10 minutes tardy. Well, thank goodness I arrived early: Cocoyaya closes at 8 p.m., giving it one of the earliest closing times of any dinner-serving restaurant in the Old Pueblo. Here, apparently, the early bird gets the worm, and the not-so-early bird goes hungry. Seeing as some restaurants often try to rush diners who arrive close to the closing time, I was a bit concerned, but my concerns were unnecessary. The delightful staff gave us all the time we needed, and we rarely felt rushed.

The 15-minute lag time between my arrival and Rene's entrance gave me time to check out the menu and the décor closely. As for the menu, the thing that struck me is how inexpensive it is. Most of the entrées and specials (including enchilada plates and the dinners featuring chile relleno, chicken flautas, birria, carne con chile verde, albondigas en chipotle and carne chile Colorado) are $7.50; the most expensive, the shrimp fajitas, is $11. The second-most expensive dishes, the chicken and beef fajitas, are $9. A quesadilla ($3.50), nachos ($5.50 or $7.50 with beef and chicken) and a cheese crisp ($5.75 or $7.75 with beef or chicken) make up the appetizer menu, and a variety of soups, salads and sides complete the offerings.

The look of the restaurant is homey, a nice accomplishment given its strip shopping-center digs. The walls are a muted pink color, and wooden trimming surrounds the restaurant where the walls meet the ceiling. The space is divided by a half-open wall. One thing, I should note, set off my tacky meter: paneling that is supposed to be like bricks. The highly visible seams between panels ruined the effect. Fortunately, the restaurant features paintings and vases with plants to take your eyes off the seams.

When Rene arrived, we quickly ordered so we wouldn't keep the Cocoyaya folks up too late. We split the aforementioned quesadilla, and I ordered a half-bowl of the soup of the day, vegetable beef (a steal at $2). For entrées, I got the house specialty, the Yaya's taco ($7.95), and Rene ordered the rajitas en crema ($7.50). For drinks, I ordered hot tea, and Rene ordered a soda; we decided to forego the beer, the margarita and the pina colada that the restaurant offered.

The servers delivered our quesadilla promptly, along with chips and salsa. There wasn't much to the quesadilla: It was the standard tortillas with cheese in the middle, and guacamole and sour cream on top. It was toasted perfectly, and it hit the spot.

The salsa at Cocoyaya is worth noting: It was amazing. It's a pureed, creamy-style salsa that is oddly colored orange. The reason: They roast the peppers and tomatoes before blending them. The result is a uniquely delicious smoked flavor. It's the best salsa I've had in Tucson, and that's saying something.

My soup was also a delight. Containing tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, squash and corn along with the shredded beef, it had a bit of an unexpected sweetness to it. The corn and the tomatoes were what my taste buds picked up the most. It was wonderful, a perfect antidote to a chilly night.

Our entrées were delivered within a few minutes of my soup (a sign that they may have been rushing us just a bit). This was slightly annoying for two reasons: one, our table was small, meaning there was little room for both my soup and my dinner plate (which sat on top of a large, metallic-silver-colored plastic platter); and two, it meant I didn't have time to savor the soup. (As an aside, the small table size, combined with my klutziness, resulted in a broken plate later in the meal.)

The fact that I didn't get to savor my delicious soup was worsened when my entrée didn't fit my fancy. This is the house specialty, so I'll give them a benefit of the doubt--but to my taste, the dish didn't work at all. The taco consisted of a cheese tortilla, containing grilled steak, ham, bacon and sautéed onions. All I could really taste was the cheese; the slightly burnt cheese flavor smothered the muted flavors of the meats involved. Ham and steak aren't known for having a strong flavor, and they might have well not even been there. It was also tough to eat from a physical standpoint; the cheese tortilla didn't have the structural integrity to pick up, and it was tough to cut through. This is not something I would order again.

I'd more likely order what Rene had, the rajitas en crema. Featuring poblano chiles cut into strips and sautéed onions in a smooth, cream-colored cheese sauce, it was fantastic. Served in a bowl, it was like a soup, and Rene enjoyed every bite, except for the bite that I enjoyed.

Let down by my entrée, I was looking forward to devouring a piece of tres leches cake ($3.75), one of my favorite desserts around. I was crestfallen when the server told me they were out. Instead, they offered a special not on the menu, an apple chimichanga with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream ($4.55). It was a treat, perfectly prepared and sweet. It made me forget about the tres leches cake completely. Well, it almost did.

Aside from my sub-par entrée and the strangely early closing hours, I was thoroughly delighted with Cocoyaya. The folks there clearly wanted Rene and I, along with the rest of the customers, to enjoy ourselves. They're also proud of their little restaurant--them asking to be reviewed serves as evidence of this--and they have every reason to be proud.

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