If you’ve ever found yourself at a local swap meet, county fair or downtown event, you’ve likely been met by a certain heavenly aroma. The sweet scent of thin circles of dough sliding into hot oil is as near to a Tucsonan’s heart as the taste of a watermelon Eegee as a July monsoon rumbles in the distance.
While some refer to them as popovers, and others as Indian fry bread, the consensus by those fortunate to taste them is that no matter the name, they are a delightful Old Pueblo treat.
The Gonzales family opened Cafe Santa Rosa — a fry bread mecca located within the city of South Tucson — in 2013.
While South Tucson has an abundance of Mexican restaurants, Sylvia and Daniel Gonzales felt that it was crucial to preserve their Tohono O’odham heritage. Their challenge? To find the balance between maintaining authenticity while presenting an enticing menu to patrons.
“We try not to veer off [from authentic Tohono O’odham cuisine] too much. It’s tough because there are so many Mexican restaurants around us,” Daniel said.
“Most of our influence is local, we don’t just have fry bread — we also have tacos, enchiladas, and other things,” added Sylvia. “The [Tohono] O’odham menu isn’t very big, so we end up with a lot of influence from Mexican food.”
The result is a successful celebration of Native American cuisine and the Mexican cuisine that is held so highly in South Tucson.
Each dish reflects the homemade approach that the Gonzales family intended when compiling the menu.
“Our fresh cooking, [which reflects] the authenticity of our community, takes us a long way. Everything is made from scratch — we don’t buy canned food; we don’t freeze food; everything is made to order. We think that people appreciate that,” Daniel said.
And then there are their acclaimed house-made popovers — used for both entree and dessert.
The red chile popover, their most beloved dish, features a massive piece of fry bread. It sits on the plate like a crispy, warm blanket and is topped with a savory stew of red chile beef (green chile is also available!). The meat is tender and rich in flavor, while the bread maintains its crispy-outside, fluffy-inside texture while soaking in the chile sauce.
Other house favorites include their Indian Taco, which is a popover topped with ground beef, beans, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce, and their Sunday-exclusive Menudo.
For dessert, the popover is lightly topped with your choice of honey, powdered sugar (black shirt wearers beware) or chocolate/strawberry syrup.
Whether you choose the knife-and-fork method, the rip-and-tear approach or roll it up and eat it burro-style, the only problem we foresee is not ordering enough of the edible fried frisbees. Whether fry bread flies the highest in savory dishes versus sweet is certainly up for debate. Regardless, you’ll be satisfied.
After six years at their previous location on 12th Avenue, Cafe Santa Rosa recently moved into a much larger location at 2615 S. Sixth Ave. Although the move provided a larger space to accommodate patrons, it posed challenges.
“We literally had 13 tables [at our last location]. There are 33 tables just in the front here,” Sylvia said. “We wanted to staff it as soon as possible, it was crazy.”
What came next was unexpected.
“[The move] forced us to close our San Xavier location,” Daniel added. “We didn’t want to let it go, it was really sad actually.”
The closure of their second location (San Xavier) allowed them to bring all of their employees together in the new building, which, in turn, has increased productivity and kept them afloat.
Currently, Cafe Santa Rosa consists of a large dining area, a side room for private parties, a full bar in the back, and a large venue in the rear of the building where they’ve hosted everything from wedding receptions to retirement parties and quinceaneras.
“We also have a lot of music — we’ve had tejano nights, chicken scratch (a traditional Tohono O’odham style of dance music) nights, and country nights at least once a month or so,” Sylvia said. “We’re just really trying to make better what we have.”
But it doesn’t stop there. Cafe Santa Rosa plans to grow into their new location with the introduction of new menu items, a bar menu expansion and will continue to host events.
So, the next time you’re craving delicious fry bread or combination plate, pop on over to Cafe Santa Rosa and see what’s buzzing. You’ll want to stay for a michelada or watermelon marg!
Cafe Santa Rosa, located at 2615 S. Sixth Ave., is open from 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Sundays.