Start with a heart of Romaine, curled up on the plate like a crisp green flavor envelope waiting to be filled. Add tangy corn pico de gallo. That's the foundation for the main event — chicken in a dark, glossy mole simmered up from a generations-old family recipe. Top with thinly sliced, perfectly ripe avocado. This is Las Tazas ($12), "the cups," a simple, elegant appetizer at Tuyas in downtown Ferndale.
Four women at a nearby table gaze longingly at our plate. "What is that?" they want to know. "I wish we hadn't already ordered." They want our chicken mole lettuce cups. Who could blame them?
Mole is a complicated flavor. Peppers and chocolate. Hot and sweet, smooth and sharp all at once. I attempt to consume this like a taco, with mole squishing out the end. I reach for a fork to recover every pinch of rich, hot chicken. The appetizer leaves me wanting more mole. Which is fine, since chicken mole is an entrée on Tuyas' lunch and dinner menus, served with rice, beans and tortillas.
Fresh is the word of the day here. The building doesn't even have a freezer. "Everything is made and prepped today," says Tuyas owner Glory Lagielski. The salsa that came to the table with the homemade chips? Its ingredients were minced in this kitchen this morning. Likewise, the guacamole and the corn pico de gallo.
Lagielski, who also co-owns the Shamus T. Bones in Eureka, has long wanted to open a Mexican restaurant in Ferndale. When a location opened up downtown, about three blocks from her home, she jumped on it, transforming it into a bright, airy space with dreamy, color-saturated paintings and a mural in the alley. The menu, crafted by Mexico City chef Guillermo Dominguez, includes creative flourishes like a beet and arugula salad with mango, pecans and jicama dressed in mint-lemon vinaigrette ($13).
There's no wall of tequila at Tuyas but a solid selection of Spanish wines in addition to several wines from Humboldt and Mendocino. The house cocktail is the Wild Souls Ranch Sparking Cowgirl ($10), a low-alcohol lavender mojito made with sparkling wine — a mellow choice for lunchtime imbibing. I order a glass of Spanish Albariño ($9) but it's popular and fresh out, so I go with Briceland Vineyard's Arneis ($8.50). This Mendocino white balances the stunning coctel de camerones ($13.50), a giant goblet of poached shrimp and avocado in a salty-sweet, slightly effervescent tomato sauce.
Zesty fish tacos arrive drizzled in a piquant cilantro-lime ranch ($12). The most comforting of foods on the menu are the sopes ($7.50), a platform of housemade masa topped with choice of meat and a small salad of lettuce and tomato, punctuated with guacamole and queso fresco.
If you've still got room, you might think about the torta de tres leches or, you know, another plate of Las Tazas.