There are moments when living in the Sonoran Desert is one long moment of bliss, such as when the wildflowers tumble forward in riot of glory. The life of a seed is a fascinating event, and only precise conditions can breathe life into a seed that has lain dormant for hundreds of years. It can take less than a minute to bind a seed to soil if it finds the right amount of water. And this year was certainly a banner year. One only had to drive out beyond the hub of Tucson to find eye-popping displays of color.
While the flowers are now already adjusting themselves to pending heat, should you end up at Saguaro National Monument East, tired and thirsty and a bit dazed from all the color, you might find yourself in the need for a bit of refreshment. Your only real choice for a moment's recovery is to stop at the dilapidated sign, peeling and forlorn in the sun, that spells out Saguaro Corners Restaurant and Lounge.
Talk about a relic that has hung on. Opened in 1956 (!) as a gas station with eight stools and a two-table café, Saguaro Corners has long since had several generational cycles, indeed gone to seed yet managed to hang on and on. In case you haven't noticed, bell-bottoms are in, and so is a lot of the paraphernalia that was hip and cool during the '60s. Going to Saguaro Corners is a truly hip experience, but mostly because they apparently have no idea that the rest of the world traveled on into a new millennium. This is hip at its most unpretentious best.
The real attraction for Saguaro Corners has nothing to do with the restaurant's rather quaint Continental cuisine, but the solid glass walls that provide you floor-to-ceiling views of desert life. While you dine, you can watch quail and woodpeckers and the occasional roadrunner come and snatch up food and a hasty drink. We watched a rabbit eat a piece of bread. This brought a chorus of oohs and ahs. I have been at Saguaro Corners when the javelina came trooping through for the scraps the restaurant sets out. The babies came right up to the window and the entire restaurant empties out to stand at the windows and watch as the babies snuffle about (oh those darling things) and the parents snarf up the scraps (oh, aren't they awful?). This is quaint, mostly because for many people that live in Tucson, this is their only opportunity to actually see a Sonoran species in the flesh. Unless they've paid admission to a zoo.
I wish I could say that the food was worthy of the destination, but really it's more of a matter of convenience. If you've been out hiking all day, it's mighty nice to have a place to duck into and feed and water the restless tribe. The décor is so retro it doesn't know that it's back in style. Basically the entire menu and most of the staff are lost sometime in the '60s. Beware the rather curmudgeonly gentlemen who will bark out a drill routine about whether you have a reservation or not (even if the restaurant is empty). This might be for image, or possibly his own odd need for self importance, but on every occasion I've frequented Saguaro Corners I've been asked if I have a reservation even when the dining room is perfectly empty and my entire experience was basically a solitary one. To soothe this gentleman's need for order, you might want to phone in a reservation, even if it is from a cell phone in the parking lot.
Upon being seated, you will be served a relish tray. I can't recall the last time I found one of these served tableside, save for a family reunion about 20 years ago. The relish tray at Saguaro Corners even Grandma approves of: celery, carrots, black olives and a scallion. God love a relish tray. I have always been hard-pressed to find the original intent for them other than to crunch as you wait for more food to arrive. Here you'll enjoy a moment of identification with all those animals on the other side of the glass crunching up their fiber, too.
The menu is limited and petrified in the era of Continental cuisine when every plate had a vegetable and a starch. All meals start with the choice of soup or salad. The appetizer menu is routine in its offerings: seafood or fruit cocktail, fried mushrooms, zucchini and onion rings, fried cheese. No small-plate grazers will escape unscathed here, as all appetizers have two prices: one if you order dinner and another more expensive one if you do not. We failed to find a rationale for this that didn't involve the blatant explanation that if you made it all the way out here, you'd better order dinner. So we did.
Watching the lively bird and animal display, we felt considerable guilt about devouring our brethren so happily frolicking outside the window. One in our party ordered the broiled salmon filet ($14.95). Apparently back in the '60s it was de rigueur to cook the life right out of a piece of fish, because god knows the last time it saw water. The filet made an audible thonk when tapped with a fork, signifying it was cooked beyond hard, then served with a sprig of parsley. Of course we had a choice of starch, in this case hash browns and some steamed vegetables. I imagine at some point in time this might have been considered an adventurous plate (O! Salmon in the desert!), but it now it tasted tired and sad.
A more hard-hearted companion sampled the special steak ($12.95) served with a stuffed baked potato and the same steamed vegetables. Well, it certainly was a steak. Even Betty Crocker would have approved, especially of the baked potato stuffed with butter, sour cream, cheeses and scallions. For the asking price it was certainly a robust affair.
The braised lamb shank ($13) was served with a mint sauce, baked potato and steamed broccoli, carrots and cauliflower. Lamb with mint ... when was the last time you even thought about lamb with mint? Honestly. See? It's a genuine time capsule experience.
Just consider the parfaits for dessert. When was the last time you even saw the word "parfait"? Are you sure you know what one is? Here the parfaits are tall slender glasses, almost a tulip, filled with ice cream drizzled with a bizarre collection of liqueurs. When was the last time you thought about white cacao? A little piped whipped cream, a cherry ... and it's time for the Ed Sullivan show!
This is the primary charm of Saguaro Corners. More than the antiquated food and the unbelievable service (which is either cranky and irritated that you showed up or else trying to cover for the irritable management), how often have you dined in a time capsule?
True, you can watch the wildlife on one side of the window, but it is far more interesting to watch the endangered species on the inside of the restaurant as they negotiate their way through a cuisine and service that are so antiquated, it's almost a perverse pleasure to pay for what amounts to an assault on the senses.
After the ephemeral beauty of all those wildflowers, this is just the ticket to return you to a healthy sense of balance. It's amazing how some things just manage to endure. But they do survive. Oh yes, they do.
Saguaro Corners Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge. 3750 S. Old Spanish Trail. 886-5424. Open Tuesdays through Sundays; lunch: noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner: 5 to 9:30 p.m. MC, Visa, Am Ex. Menu items: $2.50-$49. Reservations: recommended.