Someone’s in the kitchen with Doña
The fluorescent lights, the TV blaring Spanish-dubbed Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, and the mishmash of secondhand tables that compete for space with the baking ovens (those are located in the middle of the dining room) give La Cocina de Doña Clara all the ambience of a late-night laundromat. Ignore the atmosphere and come here for the food. Behind the counter, the cooks are whipping up some of the best Mexican comfort food this city offers.
At the core of the restaurant’s expansive menu are gorditas — rounds of fresh corn masa cooked on a griddle, split in half, and filled with stuffings like mole-dappled rice, chicharrón, grilled beef, and strips of succulent cactus. These gorditas are perfect pillowy discs served piping hot. One came stuffed with chicharrón as it should be prepared: neither crisp nor soft but with a firmness and delicacy reminiscent of poached pears. The filling in the gordita de nopalitos (prickly pear cactus pads) was particularly fresh. The julienned cactus strips were still crisp and tangy on the palate.
At least two specials pop up on the menu board daily. On a Sunday night, I feasted on birria, a stew of peppers and goat cooked in its own juices. The perfectly braised goat fills an enormous plate and comes laden with a sauce made of chile de árbol, a nutty, aromatic pepper that complements the goat’s gamey tendencies well. The dish is best enjoyed by scooping the goat meat into fresh corn tortillas and adding a squeeze of lime and a dollop of the delicious cabbage-cilantro slaw served in the restaurant’s salsa bar. Speaking of which, a Spanish-language sign perched on the salsa bar pleads with customers to take only two cups per order. It’s a rule I routinely violated to scoop up more guacamole, in this case a frothy, whipped concoction made by beating whole milk, avocados, and garlic together till it looks like meringue.
Even the refreshments stand out at this small storefront restaurant. The Coca-Cola bottles come from Mexico, where the country’s bottlers use cane sugar as a sweetener instead of corn syrup, resulting in a stronger, brisker soda. One licuado (blended milk and fruit drink) was rich when prepared with banana, while the papaya version would have benefited from using riper fruit.
On a weekday visit, I sampled the day’s special of caldo de espinazo, a simple soup made from dried chile pods and pork backbone. Although picking the succulent meat off the odd-shaped bones is a fussy, two-handed endeavor, there are certainly worse ways to while away a chilly afternoon.
Beyond the daily specials and gorditas, the restaurant offers a wide variety of tortas and tacos — the latter its only off-note, as far as I could tell. An order of tongue and pork-belly tacos were solid snacks. Unfortunately, the meats were a tad oily (even for tacos) and carried too much of a charred taste from the grill.
The desserts and pastries on display explain why a full third of the dining room is given over to ovens and pastry tables. Desserts are made fresh daily in-house, and it shows. A slice of flan gingerly skipped over all the pitfalls that often beset this dish (too eggy, too heavy, too watery) to arrive at a slice of caramelized custard that was light on the tongue while delivering a velvet ballast of caramel crème sweetness. The tres leches cake, moist and chewy from the milk that it has been soaked in, showed light hints of anise flavor in every bite. At $2.50 a piece, this may very well be the city’s best date-night dessert deal.
With just one waitress on hand during both visits, the service — while very friendly and knowledgeable about ingredients and preparation — still has some hurdles to overcome. The cooking time on the food seemed to flow much faster on a Sunday night than during a weekday lunch, when we waited more than 20 minutes for our food to arrive, even with only a few other patrons in the restaurant. As word of mouth increases the turnout, the restaurant would benefit greatly from adding another server — and perhaps softening the lighting. With its current antiseptic glare, it’s the wrong kind of foil for food that brims with warm, homemade, mood-mellowing goodness.