The World According to Suzana

In the restaurant known for little things, Suzana Davila has built a reputation on big flavors.

March 7, 2016

FeaturesIssue 17: March/April 2016

The lore of Suzana Davila is long and varied. Businessmen crossing the country stop planes in Tucson just to eat her food. Travelers come in clasping folded newspaper clippings four or five years old, gushing about how long they’ve been waiting to taste her mole negro. Some Tucsonans eat at Café Poca Cosa twice a week because, they say, they can’t get what she’s serving anywhere else.

Davila builds churches, funds orphanages, and feeds the hungry. After learning that a priest in her native San Carlos, Sonora, had to give sermons from under an umbrella when it rained, she built the community a new church. She buys textbooks for schoolkids in Guaymas and food for their families. Once, she drove south in a moving van full of medical supplies only to be turned back at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Now I bring a little at a time,” Davila says.

A little at a time is an approach that’s served her well. “That’s how the whole concept started—that you get to try a little bit,” says Davila. “That’s why it’s called Café Poca Cosa. Try a bunch of little things.”

Shanali Davila makes all the pastries at Poca Cosa; she recently added vegan cupcakes to the menu with three to five rotating daily flavors.

Shanali Davila makes all the pastries at Poca Cosa; she recently added vegan cupcakes to the menu with three to five rotating daily flavors.

Davila started small—six tables in a restaurant “the size of a parking spot”—and became big—featured in Gourmet and The New York Times, praised as serving the best Mexican food in Tucson. After nearly 30 years in business, her menu has barely changed. Except, of course, that it changes daily, each new menu recorded in curly, momentary white cursive on the restaurant’s signature chalkboard easels.

Over 30 years, three locations, and thousands of menus, Suzana Davila has written the story about what it means to eat at Café Poca Cosa. To eat at Café Poca Cosa is to be served well, to be surprised, to be celebrated. Above all, to eat at Café Poca Cosa is to be submersed in the world according to Suzana Davila.

Order the restaurant’s most popular dish, El Plato Poca Cosa, and the chef will serve you a sampling of three dishes on the menu. The chef takes no requests, makes no substitutions, handles no hints or nudges. “The fun part of the plato is that you sort of close your eyes and let me handle it,” says Davila. “And it will be so fun for you to try something that perhaps you never would have tried,” she says. “I think people need to recognize—you’re coming into my home. You know about my cuisine. You have read about it before. You want to open your eyes and say, ‘I’ll try it?’ I don’t care that you have something to say. I want to make sure that’s clear.”

Davila calls Gloria Payan her right-hand woman. She’s worked in the kitchen for 16 years.

Davila calls Gloria Payan her right-hand woman. She’s worked in the kitchen for 16 years.

Davila grew up in San Carlos, a beach town near the port of Guaymas. When, at 15, her family moved to Tucson, she didn’t speak a word of English; she enrolled in high school at Immaculate Heart, but started volunteering with a kindergarten class at St. Joseph Catholic School to help her language skills. “I helped the teacher and worked with the students,” she says. “It was perfect. You pick up the block. You sweep with the broom.

She worked as a model and interior designer before she went to look at a little storefront on Scott Avenue. “My father and I decided, why don’t I get it started and see what happens and it’ll be a lot of fun and I love cooking and my father had taught me most of the cooking and my mother is very good in the kitchen,” she says. Davila speaks musically—one phrase rolls into the next and the next, attention cornered by cadence rather than punctuation. “I said, this is perfect. My father was retired and I said, ‘Get out of retirement because you’re going to help me out.’ It was so much fun because everyone remembers Daddy dancing and cooking in the kitchen with me.”

Within a few weeks of opening, the city started a construction project on Scott Avenue. “I thought, I’m doomed,” she says. “And then I said, no I’m not.” She started making coffee and fresh juice for the workers. “And then I’d say, ‘What do you guys want to have for lunch?’ And one would say, ‘I want caldo de queso.’ Or carne asada. And I’d say, O.K., cool, I’m going to put that on the menu.”

She soon had a line out the door. Eventually, she expanded into the Santa Rita Hotel and her sisters, Sandra and Marcela, took over the little restaurant. The Little One, now at Stone and Alameda, still serves breakfast and lunch.

When the Santa Rita Hotel was demolished in 2005, Davila moved the restaurant to 110 E. Pennington St. and settled in. “Besides changing location and décor, I don’t think we’ve changed much in terms of who we are from Day 1,” says Shanali Davila, Suzana’s daughter. Both Shanali and her brother, Christopher Stockstill-Davila, work full time at the restaurant. Christopher manages the bar while Shanali does desserts and helps with scheduling and orders.

“The restaurant is my life,” says Christopher. “It’s what I know. It’s coming from my home to my other home. It’s not a job. I’m here helping out my mom.”

“She has a very generous heart,” says Shanali. “Always has. She was a single mom to the two of us. She always tried to figure out how to help others. It definitely rubbed off.”

In addition to her work in Mexico, Davila donates gift certificates to dozens of charities around town. She donates money to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Casa Maria. When jobs at the restaurant open up, she reaches out to the Gospel Rescue Mission, which offers shelter and relief to those struggling with homelessness or addiction. “She believes that people should be able to get a second chance,” says Suzy Crockwell, who runs the restaurant’s business office. “And sometimes a third chance and fourth chance.”

As downtown has transformed around them, “We stick out like a sore thumb,” says Shanali. “Who tries to change their menu twice a day, five days a week? You don’t come here because you want your normal Mexican food.”

At Café Poca Cosa, the food is defined by the sauce; specifically, by the 20 varieties of mole that rotate on the menu.

At Café Poca Cosa, the food is defined by the sauce; specifically, by the 20 varieties of mole that rotate on the menu.

The food at Café Poca Cosa is sauced. It is always modified by “in.” Pollo en mole negro. Asada en salsa brave de chiles. Cochinito en tomatillo y habanero. Chicken, steak, and pork dishes tend to be slow-cooked, falling-apart tender, and drenched in mole. Ask Davila about her moles—there are more than 20 varieties—and her whole face opens up. “The pipian verde is to die for! There are so many ingredients—lettuce, spinach, peanuts, sesame seeds, onions, pistachios, pepitas. It’s so good.” She slurps in air. Her whole body is involved in conveying just how good this mole is. “Mole negro is the big chocolate mole, with the richness of the Mexican chocolate, the different combinations of chiles, almonds, pecans, sesame seeds,” says Davila. “But there’s also mole de chipotle or mole amarillo. I’ve also invented and created my own moles. And that’s the fun thing—having the tradition but also having my own little twist.”

It’s late on a Wednesday morning, half an hour before the restaurant opens for lunch. Davila stands suddenly, distracted by a man at the front door. She catcalls, “You’re here! I need you so baaaaaad.” The man who just walked in the front door calls back: “Yeah, yeah.” “It’s my coffee guy,” she says, sitting again. “The coffee maker started acting up this morning. I said, ‘I cannot!’”

But the coffee man has come. The coffee man knows what to do. Like nearly everyone else in Davila’s world, he’s been around for a while.

That her employees stick around—sometimes for decades—is a point of pride for Davila. “Everyone who works for me, we all work together as a team,” she says. “I don’t have any managers. If I have to hire a bunch of managers to manage you then I don’t need you. I want you to grow with me. I want you to have that confidence in yourself to be able to handle it.”

Server Laura Mabry holds Café Poca Cosa’s chalkboard menu, which changes daily.

Server Laura Mabry holds Café Poca Cosa’s chalkboard menu, which changes daily.

“Working here has changed me,” says Laura Mabry, a server since 2015. “It’s made me a stronger, more empowered woman. She is illuminating. Because everywhere she goes, she’s full of energy. She’s just shining.”

“I feel like when I started here, she’s very much able to get out your inner strength,” says Crockwell, who’s worked with Davila for 17 years. “I think as a woman, I’ve matured working for her for so long.”

By the time the coffee man leaves, customers have begun to trickle in. Back in the kitchen, Lisette Martinez, a cook since 2006, is busy assembling salads. “They all have to be very fresh, very different,” she says. Her birthday is coming up and she reminds Davila about the cake.

“It’s a small thing,” says Crockwell. “All employees get a cake on their birthday. It works like a family. We come together, we sing.”

More significantly, all eligible employees also get health insurance. After four years, every employee is given a retirement plan that’s 100 percent vested, which means that employees own and control their own accounts, even if they leave the café.

Lisette Martinez has been on the line, creating Poca Cosa’s colorful salads, for more than 10 years.

Lisette Martinez has been on the line, creating Poca Cosa’s colorful salads, for more than 10 years.

Without managers on the floor, servers are responsible for managing their own sections and dealing with any disputes that arise. Jeff Willer has worked as a server for 10 years and says, “She allows us our own voice. When you’ve been here as long as I have, that’s important.”

Casey Golden started as a busser in 2013 and eventually worked his way up to being a server. “It’s different from any other service job I’ve had,” says Golden. “You can’t work here unless you think about the food in a different way, because it’s always changing. You really have to be on her level—she spills her soul into this place.”

Again and again, employees comment that Davila is there. She’s there, shift after shift, plate after plate. Crockwell says she’s worked alongside Davila scrubbing toilets, washing dishes, or busing tables. “She doesn’t expect anything from anyone that she wouldn’t do herself,” she says. “I think some of it”—it being the magic of Suzana—“is seeing her strength. Whatever you do, be the best at it. And be proud of what you do.”

Server Antonio Cisneros carries a colorful tray of Poca Cosa’s signature cocktails. The best selling drink at Poca Cosa? “The classic margarita,” says Suzana’s son Christopher.

Server Antonio Cisneros carries a colorful tray of Poca Cosa’s signature cocktails. The best selling drink at Poca Cosa? “The classic margarita,” says Suzana’s son Christopher.

On a Thursday night in January, the restaurant sparkles and chatters. Plates emerge from the kitchen, each one a spectacle. Salads are jumbles of color, flamboyantly displayed—sliced apples arrayed in pineapple tops punctuated by bright shredded beets or dark marbled grapes. Patrons awaiting their Plato Poca Cosa sit up straighter in their seats as their servers approach, craning to see if they’ve received what they hoped for.

Davila stirs about, wearing tight leather pants, pointed toe flats, and an impeccably pressed, impossibly white, Oxford shirt. A middle-aged man sits in the foyer awaiting his wife. “Should I get you a margarita while you wait?” Davila asks. “What kind of party are we going to have tonight?” The man laughs and shakes his head. Davila moves onto the next cluster of customers—she’s throwing a party every night, no matter who decides to attend.

“She has a certain amount of swag and charm,” says Willer. “I sometimes think people come in here just because they want to see Suzana.”

The interior is dim; the décor, modern. The restaurant is full of older couples, families. There are a few younger couples, groups of businesspeople. Davila skirts behind the bar and needles at Christopher. “You should see him when we’re really busy. He’s kick-ing-it.” She teases him, asking when he’s going to step it up and take over the restaurant. It’s an old joke, worn into an easy shtick. Christopher shakes his head. “We can’t even get her to take a vacation,” he says.

Davila does take a vacation every year—she closes the restaurant every summer for a month. She used to invite her employees to join her at her home in San Carlos, but as her grandchildren are getting older, she’s started taking the opportunity to travel the world with her family.

Christopher Stockstill-Davila has managed the bar at Café Poca Cosa for nearly two decades. “When we moved to this space, my mom said: okay, I can build what I want. I can make it how I want it to look,” he says. “It’s very modern, Mexico City inspired.”

Christopher Stockstill-Davila has managed the bar at Café Poca Cosa for nearly two decades. “When we moved to this space, my mom said: okay, I can build what I want. I can make it how I want it to look,” he says. “It’s very modern, Mexico City inspired.”

Over the years, she’s gradually relinquished her grip on the pots and pans in the kitchen, turning over the day-to-day kitchen operations to her cooks. “These girls have been with me so long, they read my mind,” she says. “I still have that passion. I still love tasting. I still love running the show. I keep telling my children, it’s time you guys! Time for you to pick it up. And they just say”—rolling her eyes—“like that would happen. I still have a great deal of energy. I don’t need a lot of hours to sleep.

“It’s seeing all those faces that have supported you forever,” she says. “That have been with you. That have seen the changes from the tiny one to here. It’s really sweet. That’s what keeps me going.” ✜

Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food (William Morrow 2015).







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