Combo Plate La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)

The History & Rich Flavors of La Olla Mexican Cafe in Marana

October 26, 2023
By Matt Sterner

For 17 years, La Olla Mexican Cafe — a Marana staple — has been creating memories with its made-from-scratch dishes, welcoming hospitality, and admirable resilience. All of this has been going on at 8553 N. Silverbell Rd. and there’s a chance this is the first you’re hearing of the restaurant if you’ve been living on the opposite side of town.

Honestly, my mom has been telling me about La Olla for years now, and I finally paid a visit just a couple of months ago.

a plate of food on a table
Combo Plate La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)

I’m not sure if it was the distance or the time that it normally takes to mosey on over to Marana, but I regret not stopping by sooner than I did. I’ve actually already been back again.

It’s well worth the drive.

All in the Family

La Olla (The Cooking Pot) is a family-owned restaurant operated by husband and wife Ken and Diane Gallardo, who have both been in the food and beverage business for right around 40 years. You’ll find them both working in the kitchen, which is a passion they share, but the passion goes beyond the restaurant.

“We met at Oro Valley Country Club,” said Ken. “Diane was the food and beverage manager and I was running the formal dining room — that’s where we met each other way back in the day. From there, Diane worked for La Paloma for a while, I worked at Bazil’s at the time, waiting tables, and then we got married. I went to school at the U of A and then started my own landscaping company. Diane, she started working with Janos Wilder — she was his general manager for 15 years.”

a plate of food on a table
La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)
Bringing La Olla to Life

With all of that experience, in and out of the kitchen, the Gallardos felt that it was time to start something new — something they could share together as a unit.

“When the real estate market imploded I got out of the landscaping business and I said ‘You know what? Let’s take the money we have saved up and open our own restaurant,” Ken said with a smile. “I saw them starting to clear land and I thought, you know, there’s really no Mexican restaurants out here.”

a box filled with different types of food on a plate
Taco & Chimichanga at La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)

The restaurant is about a two-minute walk away from Lil Abner’s Steakhouse, which was pretty much the only restaurant on that strip of Silverbell Road at the time and had been since 1947.

Getting La Olla up and running wasn’t an easy task either as it took three years to open. The land was part of an environmental study and by the time all was clear, it was 2007 before the Gallardos officially opened La Olla. The only thing that was left in their way was the “Great Recession.”

“After we opened, within six months, the recession — the big recession in 2007 — came around. So, there was a time when I was cooking and Diane was waiting tables — it was just the two of us and a dishwasher,” Ken laughed.

“But our kids — our poor kids!” Ken continued, “They grew up there in the back of the kitchen. We made a little spot for them and they had blankets on the floor and watched DVDs on a computer.” Funny enough, both of their kids, now grown, commit hours each week to helping out at the restaurant.

As the years have passed, La Olla remains a go-to spot for those living in Marana. The intention behind the restaurant — from the beginning — was to bring that formal dining experience that both of the Gallardos have captured over the years, but then to add their own “Sonoran-style twist” to it.

a plate full of food
Combo Plate La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)

“We don’t like to do the Mexican dishes where they just throw a blob of lettuce over everything,” Ken added. “We try to add a little more finesse and do it a little more upscale.”

Putting Their Own Spin on Things

On the menu, you’ll find classics like ground beef tacos made the old-fashioned way (beef patty that’s deep fried in a tortilla, just like your abuela makes ’em) and rolled chicken tacos. Specialty tacos come in different variations like garlic shrimp, chipotle chicken, and beer-battered fish.

There’s a slew of appetizers, too, like the Diablos Chicos — yellow peppers stuffed with shrimp, green onion, and cheese that are then wrapped in bacon, grilled on the stove, and garnished with corn salsa and Anaheim chile crema.

a close up of a plate of food
Diablos Chicos at La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)

This is easily one of my favorite dishes on the menu.

The Queso Fundido is always belly-warming, the almighty Cheese Crisp is easily shareable, and the Nachos De La Olla are shareable as well, but during my experience, I had a hard time offering over any of the tortilla chips loaded with chile con queso, chorizo black beans, cheese, and smoked poblano crema.

“Our nachos are a little different than everybody else’s,” said Diane. “There’s a smokiness to the meat that carries throughout the dish.”

a pizza sitting on top of a plate of food
Cheese Crisp & Nachos at La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)

Come extra hungry, though, because the combination plates stretch to the edges of the plate — no matter which combo you order. I went with the combo that comes equipped with a fish taco, the Diablo Chico I mentioned a moment ago and can’t stop thinking about, a shrimp empanada that’s made from scratch and baked in-house, and then sides of rice, beans, and calabacitas.

I first tried calabacitas when I was living in New Mexico, and I’ve chomped down on quite a few servings of them at restaurants here in Tucson, but now La Olla’s are easily my favorite in town. They were perfectly sauteed with a rich butteriness that left me wanting more.

“Everyone raves about those when they come in,” Diane and Ken nearly said in unison.

a plate of food with rice meat and vegetables
Combo Plate w/ Calabacitas at La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)
Proud of What They do

Overall, the Gallardo family prides themselves on their own spin on Sonoran classics, reasonably-priced dishes, friendly staff, and making sure they’re using locally sourced ingredients whenever possible.

“Most of everything we make is homemade, from scratch,” said Diane. “We try to use local produce as well. Everything we make is handmade and that’s very important to us.”

“The fish is prepared in-house — fileted and cut,” Ken added. “It’s beer-battered and then fried. Like we said, nothing comes out of a can. Nothing comes out of a box. Everything is in its original state when we get it and then we create everything from there.”

a bunch of different types of food on a plate
Tacos at La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)
Happy Hour & Specials

La Olla has different specials every Friday and Saturday evening and a daily Happy Hour from 3 – 6 p.m. which features margaritas, mojitos, wine, and beer. The “munchies” during Happy Hour include Chorizo Fundido, the Diablo Chico, and ground beef nachos.

Also, stick around for dessert! Flan, churros, sopapillas, and seasonal pies are waiting on deck.

a plate of food
Churros & Sopapillas at La Olla Mexican Cafe (Photo by J. Martin Harris Photography)

As mentioned earlier, it’s all worth the trip no matter which side of town you’re living on. So, skip that drive-thru line at Taco Bell, In-n-Out, and the other national chains in the area and cozy up with the team at La Olla for locally-made cuisine.

La Olla Mexican Cafe is located at 8553 N. Silverbell Rd. For more information, visit and follow La Olla on Instagram and Facebook. The restaurant is open 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. on Monday – Saturday and closed on Sunday. Become a Passport holder today and get an exclusive quarterly discount to use toward La Olla’s extensive menu of Mexican offerings.

Check out our Interactive Guide to discover more Marana restaurants.

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