Some­one’s in the kitchen with Doña

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Casey Sanchez

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.

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