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Dreamy Albondigas and fiery habanero salsa...in Orinda ?! (La Cocina report)

susancinsf | Oct 4, 200508:44 PM

Once a month, I find myself at the Orinda Library for a meeting of a club I belong to…and thus several times I have walked or driven by La Cocina, a fairly new Mexican restaurant right across the street from the library. I’ve never heard it mentioned on Chowhound, or anywhere else for that matter, but I’ve been curious to try it.

Finally took the chance last night when I needed a quick bite before the meeting. The place makes a very nice first impression: it is a long narrow room with a tiny bit of a bar in back, wooden Spanish-style furniture, and lots of attractive iron work and other Mexican art work, along with well-placed lighting.

It was almost full, even on a Monday night, but I was immediately seated at the only open table, next to the window... Chips, salsa and a fairly ordinary bean dip were brought immediately: the chips were listed on the menu as homemade but to me they tasted like a good packaged brand. The salsa, on the other hand, definitely was house made, although it didn't thrill me: it wasn't very hot and had more chipotle flavor than I prefer (I am not a chipotle fan).

Things got better from there. First of all, they have albondigas on the regular menu. As some regular CH readers may know, I am fixated on albondigas (meatball soup) but, with a few exceptions, it is rather hard to find on Mexican menus in the bay area, other than as an occasional special.

So, of course I ordered albondigas, along with two taquitos de carne asada, a la carte. Before ordering, I had overheard the server asking a neighboring table if they wanted ‘the really hot sauce that burns my hand if I touch it’, (perhaps this is an appropriate time to mention that the service, by a college aged kid who used the words ‘you guys’ in every other sentence, was a bit chatty and casual and perhaps a little scatterbrained, but certainly friendly) so of course I asked him to bring me some of that salsa as well. According to the menu, a salsa fresca is also available.

Both dishes came promptly. The soup was a large portion. One taste of those albondigas, and I was hooked! Ok, I know where I will be having dinner once a month from now on, to satisfy my on-going craving...The broth was thick, and both beefy and tomato-y, just the way I like it….with large chunks of vegetables (carrots, onions, string beans, potatos, zucchini), and three large, dreamy meatballs. The meatballs were well flavored with lots of oregano and mint: I found myself savoring every bite. Even better, the ‘really hot’ sauce that was brought was homemade, heavy on the habanero, complex and delicious. About two teaspoons in the broth was the perfect amount. To think I’d been searching everywhere in the bay area for these meatballs: who knew they were right under my nose, in Orinda of all places!

The menu says that the albondigas comes with cornbread, but mine did not. Just as well, perhaps. Next time I will ask for tortillas on the side.

The two taquitos were what I call flautas (which the menu description made clear): good quality tortillas rolled around carne asada in a cigar shape and then deep fried, then served with small ramekins of sour cream and tomatillo salsa on the side, along with some fresh shredded romaine. The tomatillo salsa was a bit on the bland side. The taquitos were good, nothing outstanding, but not bad either. I liked that they weren't overly greasy and that you could taste the beef. I also liked that the cream and salsa were served on the side, so I dip the flautas before each bite....(hey, I wasn't sharing! :-))

The owner came by to talk with a neighboring table, and I heard her mention that the menu concentrated on food from her family’s region: Chihauhua, in Northern Mexico, an area known for its cheese and beef. Sure enough, queso fresco figures prominently in many of the dishes on the La Cocina menu; although there are also a number of seafood dishes and some regional specialties from other areas. Other menu items I’d like to try include other soups and stews (they offer tortilla soup, black bean and corn soup, sopa de pollo, and pozole in addition to the albondigas), empanadas con ropa vieja, ceviche, and ensalada de nopales. There are definitely some less commonly found items on the menu.

I was too full for dessert, but the flan I saw going to another table looked delicious!

Total cost for my meal, with tax, tip, and a Negro Modelo (they also have horchata, aguas frescas, Mexican chocolate, Jarritos, and Margaritas), was $17. I left happy.

Bottom line: in an area with good Mexican and/or Tex/Mex restaurants (I think the Chihauhau region was the inspiration for Tex/Mex) this place might be considered somewhat above average. By bay area standards, however, particularly for anywhere accessible by BART (as opposed to Watsonville or the South Bay), I think it is excellent. There just aren’t that many ‘sit down’ Mexican places with the combination of nice atmosphere, fresh ingredients, quality preparation and reasonable prices that I was very pleasantly surprised to find at La Cocina. Obviously, I didn’t get to try a large range of the menu, but I plan to be back soon, and encourage others to try it and report back as well....

La Cocina
23 Orinda Way
Orinda, CA

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