If you're travelling west on the lonely trail of Highway 86, just off of Sells, you might pass through a township called Santa Rosa, a few miles north on the even lonelier Highway 15. Santa Rosa is home to many of our esteemed Tohono O'odham tribe, going by the Native name Kaij Mek, and it is the namesake for the quaint Café Santa Rosa on South 12th Avenue. But Café Santa Rosa is a far cry from a comfy nook serving croissants and espresso. What makes their food stand out, outside of being simply delicious, is the fact that they offer up dishes inspired by Mexican and Native traditions. This shouldn't be a unique concept here in Tucson, given our history and population, but it's not as easy to find as you might think.
Owner Sylvia Gonzales calls Santa Rosa her hometown, and when she opened the café just over five years ago, she knew that she wanted to pay tribute to her roots not only in name, but in her food as well.
"My mother is Native and my father is Mexican, so I wanted to combine the two cultures in one place," says Sylvia. "When I opened the café, I had no idea what I was doing. Our menu back then was just a few items written on a chalkboard. One thing is for sure: I wanted to introduce popovers to this community."
Now when someone says "popovers," many people envision a puffy roll made from egg batter, but in the Native American community, a popover means fry bread. Sylvia, along with her daughter-in-law Julissa and a dedicated kitchen staff, hand-make their popovers fresh every day. They are an integral part of their now expanded menu, in both savory and sweet format.
"The first year or so that we were open, we basically just served Mexican food, mainly because of the neighborhood we are in," Julissa says. "But through time, we really wanted to introduce more Native foods and now the popovers are our most popular item, even though everyone thought they were a pastry. We even have Navajos from up north that come into town just to get our popovers. So I guess that means we are doing something right."
The union of two distinct culinary customs has resulted in a delicious food child: The Indian Taco. If you attend various fairs and outdoor events here in Tucson, you may have had one from a truck or stand, but the one they serve at Café Santa Rosa is made with the restaurant's signature red chile beef and finished with heaps of beans, cheese, lettuce and diced local tomatoes.
The wonder of the Indian Taco is matched only by the other dishes served at the café. The various combination plates, ranging from about $10 to $13, are wagon-wheel-sized platters arranged with tacos, enchiladas and tostadas with sides of beans, rice or squash, which is essentially a really rustic version of calabacitas.
"My grandmother did not speak English, just O'odham, and a lot of recipes came from her side," says Sylvia. "Since we as Natives don't have a lot of food, I had to incorporate recipes from my other side of the family. People think it's funny that we serve potato salad, but Natives love potato salad! We are just trying to be true to tradition. A lot of people come in here and go 'Wow, this is how my grandparents used to cook.' Since we make chorizo every morning—a family recipe. When they say that, it always makes me feel good."
Outside of learning that popovers mean fry bread and potato salad is a Native people's go-to dish, I was also introduced to cinnamon iced tea, another O'odham favorite. It's not just cinnamon dumped into a glass of iced tea and then stirred around. It is slow brewed to give it a tangy snap that is all together surprising and very refreshing. Outfitted with a tiny kitchen boasting two refrigerators (and no walk-ins), the Gonzalez family's hard work has paid off with a second location near the San Xavier mission.
"It's called Santa Rosa Go'k; Go'k meaning 'two' in O'odham," Sylvia says. "We have survived five years here, five summers, and a lot of industry people say that if you make it to five, then you're doing OK."