Restaurant Review: La Cocina de Doña Clara
A taste of Zacatecas
By: Patricia Greathouse
Published online: Friday, September 21, 2012
Appeared in: Pasateimpo
Mexico, a country with varied ecosystems,
La Cocina de Doña Clara
2 ½ chiles
227 Don Gaspar Ave. (Santa Fe Village) and second location at 4350 Airport Drive, #4 505-983-6455 for Don Gaspar location and 473-1081 for Airport Drive location
Don Gaspar location: Breakfast & lunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Airport Drive location: Breakfast, lunch & dinner 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays, breakfast & lunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays.
Kids’ menu, Take-out, Noise level: tranquil to buzzing
In short order:
Try La Cocina de Doña Clara
either location, downtown or southside,
for Zacatecan-style Mexican food.
A family-run business with an extensive
menu, it features various filling choices
for tacos and gorditas. The menu includes
unexpected items, such as Caesar salad
with a choice of chicken, shrimp, or
nopalitos (paddle cactus) and huge
hamburgers with fries. Recommended:
gorditas, tacos, and shrimp cocktail.
*Ratings range from 0 to 4 chiles, including half chiles.
This reflects the reviewer's experience with regard
to food and drink, atmosphere, service, and value
ethnic influences, and diverse indigenous cultures, has
a cuisine that is expressed in strong regional traditions.
La Cocina de Doña Clara, operated by the Zambrano-Ruiz family of Zacatecas, serves the meat-heavy food
of the family’s homeland. Unfortunately, some of their
food falls short on flavor because of limitations beyond
A common problem that Mexican restaurateurs
encounter in the U.S. is the inability to source raw
ingredients that taste the same as they do where they
originated. For instance, Mexican cheeses, when
produced in Wisconsin, don’t taste like those produced
in Mexico. Cuts of meat are different, too. Cooks have
to adjust both ingredients and cooking methods to turn
out authentic-tasting food.
Mexicans have traditionally been locavores, getting
food from nearby fields, ranches, and markets, but
when they open restaurants in the U.S., they frequently
buy from large food distributors, who might truck in
products from thousands of miles away. For a while,
La Cocina de Doña Clara was buying cabrito (kid goat
meat) for birria (chile and goat stew) from a local New
Mexico farmer, just as the family might have done in
Zacatecas. The health department busted them, and now
they order through a meat distributor. Needless to say,
the commercially raised meat doesn’t taste the same.
The Zambrano-Ruizes grasped Americans’ expectations that Mexican restaurants be brightly colored
and festooned with serapes and sombreros, so Doña
Clara’s downtown location is festive. The tourist
trappings don’t stop Mexican employees of downtown
hotels and restaurants from dropping by the Santa Fe
Village location to pick up to-go burritos. Most Mexican
restaurants outside the tourist zones of Mexico are much
more utilitarian, and the Airport Road branch is in a
strip mall and minimally decorated.
The extensive menu at Doña Clara begins with
appetizers ranging from chips and salsa de molcajete
to guacamole and queso fundido (melted cheese with
chile strips and chorizo). Although listed in a different
part of the menu, a tasty traditional coctel de camarones
(shrimp cocktail) featuring sweet shrimp, onions,
cilantro, and avocado makes a good appetizer to share.
Many dishes, such as tacos, will sound familiar to
Santa Feans. However, these tacos are Zacatecan style,
most composed of meat and masa, and are traditionally
eaten as a light supper with no other accompaniment
except salsa. A very long list of fillings includes what
are politely called “variety meats,” coming from every
part of the animal: buche (pork stomach), guisado
or cabeza (pork head), deshebrada (shredded meat),
and barbacoa made with beef cheeks. These tacos are
more interesting and flavorful than ground-beef tacos,
although some meats that had been cooked on the
griddle would have been more tender braised.
La Cocina de Doña Clara also serves large tortas and
a delicious hamburger with fries. The gorditas, which
are griddled, are similar to pupusas or arepas, the corn
staples from El Salvador and Argentina, respectively.
The dish consists of two handmade tortillas stuffed
with a choice of filling. The list of choices is longer
and even more varied than for the tacos. Gorditas are
usually eaten for breakfast in Zacatecas but are good
Enchiladas (with a choice of New Mexico green or
red chile) or flautas may be ordered with chicken or
beef filling. The flautas are topped with guacamole
Desserts include tres leches cake, flan, chocoflan, and
flan de arroz (rice pudding flan), but stick to the savory
items on the menu. The sweets are not made in-house
and are generally not very good. The strawberry on top
of the tres leches cake was past its prime.
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