I'M ALWAYS a bit sad when farmers' market season ends. Yes, we can, with just a little effort, buy fresh produce direct from the people who grow it just about year-round now, but it's not the same as browsing the Park Blocks on a warm Saturday morning in short sleeves, buying far too much asparagus, and then, instead of running home to cook, sitting in the sun and stuffing ourselves with food-cart fare. A highlight of the market has long been Verde Cocina, a small grill run by Chef Noé Garnica—a former farmer from Guanajuato, Mexico—and his wife Anna. They prepare the kind of fresh, healthy dishes I fantasize about making when I'm down at the market, before I go home and end up cooking my brussels sprouts in bacon fat.
Well, the Verde Cocina team has gone brick and mortar now, taking over a charming two-story space in Hillsdale. (Fun fact: My sister got engaged in the building, in one of its previous incarnations—all signs point to a happy marriage.) The front door opens right onto Capitol Highway, and the entryway doesn't suggest much ambiance—just a counter, a small kitchen, and giant round grill that all your veggies and tortillas are cooked on—but the dining room upstairs is plenty handsome. The space isn't huge, seating perhaps 25, but the dark wood walls and central hutch give the place kind of a ski-lodge atmosphere. The staff is still getting the hang of table service, I think—they seem rooted, still, in food cart standards—but they're not lacking in friendliness.
The menu is small and tight, most items built around great fresh tortillas and produce, which means there's no miss on the menu, but there's also not tremendous range (one caveat: Chef Garnica worked in an Italian restaurant for some time, and will occasionally put pastas on the menu). The highlight is probably the gringas with molé ($12), which come with the option of pork filling or veggies (almost everything in the restaurant is gluten free, and most vegetarian items are also vegan friendly). If you've never had gringas, they're like soft, rolled tacos. Verde Cocina uses a fantastic handmade corn tortilla spread with a mash made of garbanzo and white bean. The molé doesn't have the boldest of flavors, but its subtleties allow the fresh ingredients—the true stars here—to shine. The dish is served with a mountain of grilled vegetables and legumes, but not the standard onions and peppers you might be used to in Mexican restaurants: kale, chard, carrots, and garbanzo beans. And unlike a lot of Mexican places in the States, the vegetables aren't grilled to a mush. The carrots still have some bite; the greens have a little texture.
There's a special quesadilla every night ($9 to $14, depending on the filling), and a standard cheese quesadilla with veggies ($10). Both are served on the same great handmade tortillas with a whole bean salad and the aforementioned mound of veggies.
Another interesting dish is the El Infierno "Chicharrones" ($10). While the warnings of spice are hyperbolic (both my date and I were hoping it'd be hotter), the tofu-based version of this typically pork-centric dish was still plenty satisfying. The tofu is baked to the point that it's just a bit crispy on the outside, then tossed in the hotter of their salsas and—yet again—served with grilled veggies.
The breakfast menu doesn't look all too different, withstanding the addition of eggs. If you're looking to avoid the typical heavy, greasy breakfast fare, Verde Cocina's a great option. Turns out that kale is a great addition to huevos rancheros, and despite their mostly animal-friendly menu, the Garnicas can cook up some mean bacon.
I'm admittedly biased toward the dish, but a can't miss is the chilaquiles ($9). It's a couple eggs scrambled with those handmade tortillas—which gives the eggs a terrific texture—then topped with grilled veggies, whole beans, and mild Ranchero salsa (it's worth asking, I think, for additional salsa).
My only complaint, across the board, is the lack of heat. A couple more chilies would go a long way. While it's refreshing to eat a meal wherein you can really taste every ingredient, these aren't the most complex flavor profiles. I know it's a matter of personal preference, but an option for more spice might lure me down I-5 and out to Capitol Highway a bit more often.
Still, Hillsdale is lucky to have Verde Cocina in the neighborhood, and on those Saturday mornings when I get nostalgic for farmers' market food, I'll gladly head that way.