There's a lot of talk in hoity-toity restaurants and among foodies these days about "nose to tail" dining. This sort of talk should not be discouraged; it's only good for chefs and diners alike. But we should remember that many people—Mexicans, as one broad example—don't know what the fuck we're talking about.
Pig cheeks, swine stomach and skull meat are par for the course among cultures not privileged enough to waste as much as 40 percent of the food they buy. Eating the whole animal isn't chic; it's simply the opposite of gluttonously stupid.
At Airport Road's La Cocina de Doña Clara, the freaky (to most Americans) pig parts aren't just served solely because of logical utilitarianism. The place is the Mexican dive of my gringo dreams, complete with slobber-inducing flavor combinations, salsa-cooling jugos, país-specific specialties and opulent pasteles to finish everything off in true cartel-boss style.
When the former occupant of the strip-mall space, El Palenque Restaurant, closed its doors, I briefly lamented the loss of the almost-magical calabacitas—very briefly. Doña Clara quickly established itself as a south side contender for best menudo, and its bustling kitchen rapidly became a prime source of undiluted, un-Americanized Mexican food.
Recently, when adventurous eater and comidista Wayne Lee (I won't call him a "foodie" because the term is practically pejorative and his leanings are acutely el otro lado de la frontera) suggested that the gorditas flying out of Doña Clara's cocina are particularly fine examples of pure Zacatecas cuisine, I had to help myself to a half-dozen.
Even with such a greedy sampling, choosing is not easy. There are offerings—such as ground beef or chicken—well inside the average American comfort zone. And then there are the delectable, infinitely more Mexican offerings: pig head, mole or nopalito (the edible cactus commonly called "prickly pear" around here). Lee recommends the rajas con queso—a filthy mash-up of chile and cheese, swaddled in the thick masa pastry typical of gorditas—and he's not wrong. Once you've added your choice of adornments from the well-stocked salsa bar, you are free to sink slowly into a corn-addled haze of cheese-induced euphoria.
If uncertainty strikes you, emulation is a good place to seek a cure. Spend a few moments watching the fresh platters of aromatic gorditas—well-browned and steaming—flying out of the kitchen, then imitate how the almost exclusively Mexican clientele dresses and dips its own orders. Don't forget to smile and be willing to ask people what they like—even if you happen to be a gabacho, you don't have to be a leering weirdo.
At $1.95 each, one can afford to indulge in a healthy spread of gorditas in order to test the waters. There's even an egg-and-chile offering—sort of a breakfast gordita. For $2.25, you can combine two primary ingredients and start assembling your own Franken-ditas.
Just remember not to focus on gorditas to the exclusion of everything else. Doña Clara is no one-trick pony. The bulk of the restaurant's menu is worthy of considerable probing, as are the rarely-seen-in-the-US Mexican staples that wind up as daily specials.
La Cocina de Doña Clara
4350 Airport Road
Breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday