Cafe Santa Rosa: Red Chile Popovers Worth Waking Up Early For

Last modified on July 12th, 2017 at 9:17 am

Popovers at Cafe Santa Rosa (Credit: Taylor Noel Photography)

As a child, Sylvia Gonzales learned how to make fry bread from her mother.

Gonzales parlayed that skill and others into opening a restaurant in April 2013. Cafe Santa Rosa is named after her mother’s native village.

The restaurant specializes in Native foods, including various types of popovers, also known as Indian fry bread.

In the sea of Mexican food restaurants in South Tucson, finding an eatery with another focus is refreshing — and delicious.

Because it’s not a traditional Native food, one thing you won’t see at Cafe Santa Rosa is chips and salsa.

The business is a family affair. Gonzales employs about 18, including a couple of nieces, daughter-in-law and nephew. Her husband, Michael, built the shutters for the expansive picture windows in front and the wood doorways inside the restaurant.

About a year ago, Gonzales opened a second location at the Mission San Xavier del Bac, which is about 10 miles south of downtown Tucson. The cafe replaces the snack shop in the plaza, which is located just outside the mission. Operating hours are from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. Sundays.

The South Tucson cafe’s two rooms that have a capacity of 65 have a welcoming vibe. Native baskets and a large map of the Tohono O’odham Nation hang on the walls. The servers are friendly and eager to please.

Popovers at Cafe Santa Rosa (Credit: Taylor Noel Photography)

Popovers at Cafe Santa Rosa (Credit: Taylor Noel Photography)

“I go to places where I really enjoy the atmosphere,” said the 54-year-old Gonzales. “I like to enjoy myself and relax.”

Gonzales, who is half-Tohono O’odham and half-Mexican, works to create authentic foods.  

“We’ve tried to stay true to the Native American cuisine,” said Gonzales, noting that some of her employees start their days early, making flour tortillas in an open mesquite pit beginning at 3 a.m. 

An example of the cafe’s authentic cuisine is the red or green chile and beans popover ($8.45). The fry bread flowed over the plate’s circumference. The melt-in-your-mouth bread, which was topped with beans and half green and half red chile pork, was piled high with shredded lettuce, cheese and diced tomatoes and looked like a delightful pizza.

Lunch specials run from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and cost $8. Choices include mini Indian tacos; two ground beef and potato tacos with beans; and a red chile burro. All specials come with a beverage.

About a year ago, Gonzales introduced distinctly non-Native yet utterly tasty pancakes on the South Tucson breakfast menu. Choices include banana and pecan and blueberry. A combo plate ($9.50) comes with two eggs; bacon; potatoes; and two pancakes.

Other breakfast items include a $6.25 special from 7 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays. The special includes two eggs; potatoes; beans; orange juice; and a choice of popover or cemait, which is a flour tortilla.

“People like our food. It’s authentic,” said Gonzales, who said the venues do a brisk catering business as well. “And it’s nice that we have no competition.”

Cafe Santa Rosa is located at 3303 S. 12th Ave.. Operating hours are 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesdays – Saturdays, 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call (520) 203-7569 or visit cafesantarosa.net.

Valerie Vinyard has written for newspapers and magazines for over 20 years, including a stint as a food writer and critic for the Arizona Daily Star. The Cleveland native has lived in Tucson more than 15 years, and still dines out daily.