Last modified on June 6th, 2017 at 8:36 am
Restaurants that last a long time often rest on their laurels, relying on past reputation or nostalgia to draw customers. Only a few improve with age. Café Roka, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary at the end of 2017, is one of those outliers.
Also atypical: this fine dining room is a mainstay in Bisbee, a hilly southern Arizona hamlet where retired miners mix with the creative types who flocked here when its last mine shut down in 1975.
But the restaurant’s unlikely location is also one of the keys to its longevity.
“We’re always on a quest for different flavors, from Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, South America.”
According to chef and owner Rod Kass — RoKa, get it? — establishing a business in a small, close-knit community enabled him to be more flexible. The restaurant is open for dinner only Thursday through Sunday.
“We’re part of a tourism-based economy,” Kass said. “In summer we’re sometimes open weekend only. People here are understanding of our limited hours.”
Work-life balance and staff loyalty benefit Kass said. “We can step back and have personal time, and recharge.”
Restaurateurs often claim that their crew feels like family, but in this case there’s evidence to back it up: Many of the employees, including the heralded bartender, Fred, have worked at the restaurant for decades. These longstanding relationships – and the experience gleaned from getting to know a job intimately — have resulted in a synchronous working rhythm.
But while some rough edges of the early days when I first visited were smoothed over, the restaurant feels as fresh and surprising – and quirky — as ever.
Take the vibe. Café Roka manages to be unpretentious while embracing many haute cuisine trappings, including a prix-fixe menu. The price of each entree includes a bowl of soup, salad, and sorbet palate cleanser. The soup and salad portions are sufficiently diminutive so as not to ruin your appetite for the main course, while the succession of plates to the table make dinner a leisurely affair.
In fact, this pacing makes a virtue out of a necessity.
“Because the kitchen is so small, it’s hard to produce a high volume of entrees all at once,” Kass said. The extra courses give the kitchen more breathing room.
Along with the slower pace of the meal, the historic setting also helps create the sense that you’ve traveled back in time to a kinder, gentler era. A converted 1907 brick storefront on Main Street was once part of the Fair department store — the three-tier space has its original pressed-tin ceiling. If you dine on the balcony, you look down on a dimly-lit room draped with tiny lights, centered by a large mahogany bar.
Of course, in Arizona Territory in 1907, many of the adjacent storefronts housed brothels. Nearby Brewery Gulch was home to some 50 saloons — beer dregs flowed freely down the street. The scene would have been more rowdy – and malodorous – than serene.
But I digress.
Back to the sorbet, which is house-made like almost everything else on the menu. When was the last time you were given a chance to cleanse your palate, except by ordering a different wine or beer between courses?
These charmingly retro touches carry through to the end of the meal and beyond. Forget cardboard or plastic takeaway cartons. At Café Roka, any leftovers you want to take home will arrive at your table wrapped in an aluminum foil swan. Or rabbit. Or turtle. Or javelina. When one of the staff decided to improvise tinfoil takeaway art, he was encouraged to do his quirky thing.
That said, if the entree portions weren’t so generous, the likelihood of your having anything to take home would be slim.
The main dishes on the seasonally changing menu are consistently interesting and well executed. My duck, for example, arrived perfectly cooked, skin crispy, meat tender. A sweet-tart cherry reduction complemented the flavor, while creamy garlic mashed potatoes provided textural contrast.
It’s a classic dish, but updated here to be lighter and subtler than standard steakhouse versions.
Which is typical. While the restaurant has never gone in for trends like molecular cuisine, say, the New American menu embraces innovation.
“We’re always on a quest for different flavors, from Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, South America,” Kass said. This quest creates challenges in terms of the cooking space, but “part of the fun is trying to recreate the flavors that you’ve tried within these limitations.”
Another helpful anomaly: Bisbee’s preserved-in-amber atmosphere has attracted out-of-town patrons but not developers. While larger cities often fall victim to the spread of big box stores, that hasn’t happened to Bisbee. If anything, the area has become more interesting. In the years since Café Roka arrived on the scene, two wine regions have blossomed nearby: Sonoita/Patagonia and, more recently, Willcox.
“The growth of the wine industry has been really exciting,” Kass said. “We represent that on our menu, sharing as many local wines as we can.”
Wine-tasting dinners have become regular events and, last year, Kass decided to draw on the pool of nearby talent to create his own label: winemaker Rob Hammelman of Sand-Reckoner used grapes from Golden Rule vineyards processed at Aridus’s custom crush facility to concoct Roka Red. Kass was a little concerned about the outcome of this collaboration, but the 100 original cases quickly sold out.
That’s no surprise.
As long as Kass continues to be willing to try new things – and worry enough about the results to keep them from being too offbeat – Café Roka will continue to thrive.
Café Roka is located at 35 Main St., Bisbee, Arizona 85603 and can be reached at (520) 432-5153. For more information, visit caferoka.com.