Kofi Ansong

On a cold day, sun glaring over New Haven, cars and bundled-up people on Park Street rushed about. Inside La Cosinita Mexican Cafe, it was warm. And in the kitchen, where I watched Facundo, the owner and head chef of the cafe, stir a large pot of bubbling mole, it was hot. A worker assisted him, preparing tacos deeper into the kitchen, and after I took a few pictures of the chef’s craft, his daughter returned me to my seat.

Having all the workers at La Cosinita dedicate their energy and time just to Brandon and me felt unfair. In the moment, though, we were happy about it. We sat in the back, far away from the large arched windows that run along the cafe’s front. Along the brick walls were several triangular holes that housed small shrines to the Virgin Mary. There were also two sombreros hung up, which together with the other decorations, gave us the impression of eating in a place far from campus.

And for even the most unadventurous eaters, the food at La Cosinita will only add to the escapism. Large Tex-Mex corporations stress themselves over the consistency and taste of their queso. At La Cosinita, Facundo will wake up hours before the restaurant opens to prepare mole, a sauce made with an assortment of chili spices, peppers and chocolate. Mole coats our chicken enchiladas, the corn soft taco shells nicely absorbing all the tangy, spicy and sweet flavors I have never had to confront all at once.

There were also costillas en pipian, or pork ribs in pipian sauce, on our table. The meat came sizzling and cleanly tore off the bone with the pull of a hand or bite. The nutty and spicy pipian sauce that coated the ribs, however, left me just as surprised but less satisfied than the mole. It could have used more salt.

While we ate, Brandon’s and my conversation about the traditional food turned into a history lesson, as Jose, Facundo’s step-son, stood by our side and told us of his past. Though he brushed describing his culinary background, he stressed the joy he felt delivering traditional Mexican food in a foreign place. The mole-drenched enchiladas Brandon and I ate were the same ones he “ate as a kid back home in Mexico City.”

On a later visit, Facundo discussed with me all the work he had done before running his magnum opus. He attended culinary school in Mexico City, where he perfected the over 30 distinct meals and drinks on La Cosinita’s menu. From there, he scrambled. First, to Oregon, then to Washington, doing food prep at some places and cheffing in others. When in New York, his friend told him how much of an impact — not to mention success — he would have running a traditional Mexican restaurant in the New Haven community. This is his 20th year running La Cosinita, and being only 55 years old, he assured us he had many more years to go.

For all his years preparing traditional Mexican cuisine, Facundo has become the master of perfect ratios. While he remained impartial, saying he had no favorite dish on the menu, his daughter confessed that she preferred his traditional tacos.

I agree with her. Besides the thoughtful layers of guacamole, steak and radish he puts into the taco, Facundo enclosed his steak tacos with two corn shells, which made their sweet grainy taste an important element of his masterpieces. The amount of everything, from the thin pieces of juicy meat, to the sprinkle of crispy lettuce and drips of chile arbol, was just right, making it so that no flavor dominated and that the taco did not overflow. Each entree dish comes with a side of rice and beans, and while it may be tempting to stuff them into the tacos, I recommend they should be left as a tasty side so as not to offset the well-proportioned tacos.

Regardless, we still struggled to keep splatters of sour cream off our faces as we ate Facundo’s fish tacos, which eventually forced us to embrace our messiness and enjoy the taste.

La Cosinita’s dessert menu is less traditional, featuring both strawberries with cream and tres leches. I had the flan, whose smooth and sweet surface was lightly charred on top. Its coolness differentiated itself from the rest of my sizzling meal and reminded me of the cold that waited for me outside Cosinita’s glass door.

Kofi Ansong | kofi.ansong@yale.edu .