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McCook’s La Cocina: Sometimes Plan B can turn out to be an inspired choice
by Pam Soreide, Phil Soreide and Betty Sayers
Despite the ominous warnings on the radio about high winds, severe storms and possible tornadoes, the Rural Foodies had a mission to McCook. We had a done a story a few months ago on the venerable Coppermill Restaurant changing hands. One of the interesting aspects was how the new owner had vertically integrated his beef supply by forming an alliance with his father’s meat business. The story mentioned the care they took in aging their Prime and Choice cuts and how sublime the resulting steaks were.
Our mouths watered for beef — we’re Nebraskans, after all — and since it was Memorial Day and at least some of us are on a carbohydrate-avoidance kick, it seemed the ideal solution.
Except that no one checked to see if the Coppermill would actually be open…which, on Mondays, even Memorial Day Mondays, it is not.
We move to Plan B
As we drove around town a bit, looking in likely areas, we finally settled on two possibilities. One was Fuller’s Family Restaurant, a restaurant we knew of, but only because we’d written about their vast cookie jar collection, the other was a small Mexican restaurant, La Cocina which was whimsically colored and freshly painted with several cars out front. We decided to go in and have a drink and an appetizer to scope it out. If it was good, we’d stay; if merely okay, we’d try the nearby Fuller’s.
It being fairly early, there weren’t many patrons at tables, but we sat and ordered a margarita, a frosty mug of Dos Equis on tap, and an unexpectedly-nice glass of Pinot Grigio, along with an appetizer we had never heard of, a Yamarada, as well as a Shrimp Coctel (Cocktail).
We decide to stay
When the appetizers arrived, we knew that our nose for good food — or blind luck — had stood us in good stead once again.
A Yamarada, it turns out, is a hot dip made of a choice of chicken, beef, shrimp or chorizo, layered with melted cheese and red onion, perhaps there were refried beans in there too. It arrived en flambé; our server, Alfredo, lit it with a flourish and it turned out to be quite delicious with tortillas or tortilla chips.
The medium shrimp cocktail came in a goblet which must have held two cups at least, and was thick with whole shrimp and large chunks of avocado, along with onion and cilantro in a spicy, slightly sweet tomato juice base. Also delicious, light and refreshing. With our spoons clashing for the last shrimp, we decided that perhaps we should probably explore the menu further. We’ll save Fuller’s for another time.
Our meals arrive
There are a lot of choices on the La Cocina menu and it took us a little while to decide. One choice was the coconut shrimp salad, which featured four large shrimp, breaded with coconut and fried. The shrimp came nested on a fresh crisp bed of romaine and radicchio, with generous amounts of mangos and fresh pineapple all topped with a slightly sweet, fruity vinaigrette. Another platter held a lavish portion of chicken chilequiles, topped with sour cream and served with rice. Our last choice was the chiles rellenos — a standard by which we measure Mexican food. There were two large fresh Anaheim chiles stuffed with white queso and ground beef and dipped in a flavorful eggy, slightly sweet batter, then fried. These were accompanied by the expected rice and beans, but beans with a difference!
When our server returned, we pelted him with questions. Is the salad dressing house made? Yes, yes, everything is made here fresh, we were assured. The salsa? Oh yes. Now, these refried beans are a little different. Do you make them here also? Our waiter got a slightly secretive look. “Is a secret ingredient,” he murmured. ”We cook them here every day, we start with a large bowl of beans and fry them in very hot oil…very hot” he repeated. “Are there chiles in the beans?” I asked coyly? “Ah, yes,” he replied, a little reluctantly, dropping his voice. “Chiles de arbol.” When I got home, I looked up chiles de arbol on the Internet. Aha…in a listing showing relative heat, the chile de arbol had a four-chile rating, only exceeded by the habanero chile for heat. The chiles merely made the refried beans spicy and moreish, not at all too hot, but certainly different and memorable. We think the secret part of the recipe is in knowing when, how and how much chile de arbol to add.
An immigrant story
We asked further how long they had been in business and how they chose McCook. Alfredo told us there is a family of brothers Gutierrez — of which he is one — running the restaurant, all from the Jalisco area of central Mexico. One brother, who had been living in Tennessee, had been searching for an appropriate place and found just the set-up they were looking for in McCook – with an attached but separate bar and living space above. They bought the building eight months ago, and repainted and renovated the space before opening.
La Cocina is by no means white linen table clothes and fine tableware, but everything is clean and bright and fresh, including the food, which is, as they promise, “muy autentico”.
Sometimes Plan B can turn out to be an inspired choice.
Who to Contact
La CocinaHours: Sun-Thurs, 11:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11:00 a.m. – 10:30
112 W. 1st St.
McCook, NE 69001