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[whitespace] Dina Torres, David Levin
Taco Belle: Dina Torres, here with her partner David Levin, knows her patcharelas from her nopales.

Another Fine Mex

Chef Dina Torres brings a Mexican farmhouse flavor to downtown with Cafe Campesino

By Rebecca Patt

Dina Torres, chef at downtown's new Cafe Campesino, understands that the vaqueros out riding the range aren't the only ones who need nourishing, tasty food. We urban cowgirls and boys need love, too.

To that end, Cafe Campesino brings a vibrant new flavor to the sidewalk kiosk in front of New Leaf Market and the Del Mar Theatre that until a few weeks ago was long presided over by falafel man Ali Khah and his Ali Baba Cafe.

In an area of downtown that not long ago was notorious for its throng of loiterers and piped-in hippie-repelling classical music, Dina and her partner David Levin are carving out their own space, sprucing up the patio, playing their own music, and drawing more and more curious passers-by into their Mexican farmhouse vortex.

The new cafe exerts a pull that causes many people to stand in front of it and thoughtfully examine the menu board, which lists an assortment of Mexican fare unlike that found anywhere else in town--no small wonder in a place so bountiful with burrito selection.

The menu features traditional Mexican farmhouse cuisine, including patcharelas, gorditas, nopales and sopa de fideo. It may be a bit confusing at first to the uninitiated, but after getting past the initial deciphering, you'll find the food to be simple but extraordinary. It's healthy, affordable, satisfying, and brimming with one magical and priceless ingredient: authentic homemade goodness. Dina is up before dawn preparing all the ingredients and sauces in the traditional way fresh each day. An indigenous woman from Oaxaca lends a hand in making the tortillas. I haven't had tacos so wonderfully yummy since the last time I was 1,000 miles south of Santa Cruz.

Glossary of Tastes

A quick primer on the Cafe Campesino menu: patcharelas, a specialty from Celaya, Mexico, near where Dina grew up, are tacos made with thin corn tortillas and a choice of four fillings, topped with red, green or mole sauce. The word patcharela is derived from patchon, a slang word meaning overstuffed. Gorditas are similar except they are made with fatter tortillas sliced open and filled in the middle. Besides the usual rice, beans, avocado and chicken fillings, Dina offers potatoes, nopales (cactus) and rajas (spicy cooked peppers), and she frequently mixes it up with specials like sausage or steak and tomatoes.

Most of the dishes come topped with fresh Mexican cheese, which is crumbly, creamy and white and a refreshing change from the mozzarella or yellow cheese one typically finds at local Mexican restaurants. It makes a nice a complement to the flavorful sauces.

Dina is a discriminating chef who takes great care to follow the authentic recipes. For example, she can trace her mole recipe back to the convents of the Mexican region of Puebla, where the sauce is made with several kinds of chiles, sesame seeds, cinnamon, onion, garlic and a little bit of chocolate. You won't catch her making the Yankee version with only one kind of chile.

But then, feeding a crowd is nothing new for Dina, who first began cooking at the age of eight for her large family with nine siblings. She hails from Querretero in central Mexico, a couple of hours drive north from Mexico City. When Dina was 14, her family moved to a ranch, and she became responsible for feeding a small community. These experiences as ranch cook, plus the influence of her mother's and her friends' cooking, became the inspiration for her to start her own restaurant. She opened her first one in Mexico City when she was 20 and says the townsfolk would line up out the door to eat there.

Other highlights of Cafe Campesino's menu are the soups. Sopa de fideo is a noodle soup in a tomato broth. The alphabet noodles that Dina often uses impart a comforting childhood feeling of eating Spaghetti O's, plus a mild kick. Pozole and vegetable soup are also sometimes available.

Good Date Food

Another specialty, enchiladas verde, tastes especially good when paired with the sopa de fideo. Indeed, the combination had a strong effect on David when Dina prepared it for him on their first date.

"That was when I decided I'd fall for her," says David.

The two met when they both worked in the same building--David was a coordinator of subsidized housing, and Dina was a leader at Barrios Unidos. Leaving her position to start Cafe Campesino was a big step for Dina, as she loves working with kids, but she felt compelled to do it because she couldn't find any Mexican food she liked in Santa Cruz.

Now, imagine inhabiting a small kiosk all day long with your sweetie and densely arranged compartments of taco fixings. David says the biggest challenge to the business is making it all work in such a small space. Cafe Campesino is the only kiosk downtown simultaneously staffed by two people, an arrangement that the amiable couple seems to be navigating with grace. David usually takes the orders and translates them to Dina, who speaks limited English. Among David's other duties are preparing the delectable Mexican hot chocolate, made by melting bars of real Mexican chocolate down into milk.

The two say they are ultimately longing for more spacious digs than the kiosk, sturdy marble and steel fortress though it is. They envision maintaining the kiosk but also having a bigger space with a kitchen where Dina can cook on-site and offer more variety.

The former tenant of the kiosk was renowned for making smoothies, and David and Dina opted to purchase smoothie-making rights from him when they bought the lease. Look out for tropical fruit smoothies coming to Cafe Campesino when the weather gets warmer.

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From the November 27-December 4, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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