Downtown can be a crazy, bustling place, chock full of concrete, glass and exhaust fumes.
But there's a respite: La Cocina at Old Town Artisans. It's a small slice of paradise with an expansive patio, mature trees wrapped in small white lights, a bubbling fountain and, on most nights, live music.
Stefan George was singing bluesy tunes when we visited on a recent Thursday. George is known for his songwriting and guitar playing, and both were enticing on this night. The music was quiet enough to carry on a conversation, but good enough that you really didn't want to.
Jo Schneider, the talent behind the popular coffee (and dessert) spot, Bentley's House of Coffee & Tea, took over the space in Old Town Artisans a little more than a year ago.
She's given the place a whole new vibe, moving most of the dining outdoors (there's a small cantina, but it's the patio where the good people watching and music listening action can be found).
The menu is small, but is well-thought out and enticing.
The Thai vegetable curry ($12-$13, depending on your topping - chicken, tilapia or tofu) was a dish that surprised. And delighted.
The generous serving of quinoa was crowned with a coconut milk-based curry sauce spiked with lemongrass. Several strips of tender and moist grilled chicken lay over the quinoa. Such a simple meal, and such complex flavors.
The smothered burrito ($9 to $11, depending on a topping of pork, chicken or vegetables) was an oversized tortilla that came to the table wrapped around a hefty pork filling, slow-cooked and squirted with lime. One side of the burrito was topped with red sauce spiced with cumin, coriander and red chilies. A green sauce on the other side had a bit more of a bite.
On another visit, on a busy night when the restaurant was under-staffed, we opted for the fish tacos ($12). They took a long time coming, and when they did, the soft-shell tacos were cold. The tacos were packed with grilled tilapia and the mayonnaise-based slaw laced with lemon zest and a salsa fresca carried a nice kick.
But I have to agree with food writer Mark Bittman when it comes to tilapia: Don't eat it. It is completely tasteless. In fact, tilapia may be more offensive than faux crab meat. And we all know how offensive that is.
The disappointing taco plate was redeemed by the pizza of the day - on this day, the toppings were goat cheese, fresh tomatoes and basil. While the traditional pizza crust sagged a bit thanks to the toppings, we didn't care: the combination of ingredients on top of a grilled pizza crust warmed us against a 55-degree evening (those heaters helped, too).
Now, anybody who's been around Tucson for a bit knows that the desserts at Bentley's are homemade and primo.
Ditto the desserts at La Cocina.
A particular favorite was the Spicy Hot Hot Fudge Sunday ($4.50); cold vanilla ice cream topped by a rich hot fudge sauce spiked with jalapeños - with the seeds left in. The spicy was elegantly cooled off by the cold.
And that is real paradise.
• La Cocina. 201 N. Court Ave., 622-0351.
• Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. The bar is open until 2 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and offers a late-night taco bar.
• Noise level: Tolerable, though it can get a touch loud in the cantina if it's crowded.
• Vegetarian options: Plenty.
• Wine list: This is a down-home kind of place - the wine and cocktail lists are basic.
• Family call: Casual; kids would like it, and would probably get into the entertainment.
• Reservations: Accepted.
• Price range: Entrees range from $12 to $14.
• Et cetera: Diverse live entertainment Wednesdays through Saturdays; crafting on Sunday afternoons.