International visitors flock here. Award-winning chefs take spins in the kitchen. The recipe for the bean dip comes from Canyon Ranch Resort & Spa.
How did the Desert Rain Café, a casual dining room in a remote town of 3,000, come to have so much culinary clout?
It’s a long story dating back thousands of years to when the Tohono O’odham began foraging and hunting for food in a vast swath of the Sonoran Desert west of Tucson. The shorter version starts in 1996, when Terrol Johnson and Tristan Reader formed the nonprofit Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), and when Johnson began to dream about opening a restaurant in Sells, his nation’s tribal capital.
Johnson first met Tristan Reader, a nonnative, in 1994. “He and his wife had started a traditional food garden,” Johnson says. “I suggested we also harvest desert foods like cholla buds and saguaro fruit.” Figuring he’d enlist a few younger members of the community to help with the foraging, something he’d long been accustomed to doing with his family, Johnson was amazed to discover that they didn’t have a clue about collecting native plants.
He loaded a group of kids into his truck and taught them.
He soon realized that the young people of the community were bored and cut off from their culture. Reader and Johnson, a renowned basket maker—his work has been shown at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, among other places—started art classes, with local artists teaching basketry, painting, and gourd crafts. The garden became a gathering place—and a spot for Johnson to talk up the importance of eating native foods.
Johnson, 28 at the time, had recently been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. “In the 1960s, when we ate native foods rather than white bread and McDonald’s, we weren’t obese and didn’t have diabetes but now they’re rampant,” he explains. Indeed, the Tohono O’odham have one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, with more than 50 percent of adults suffering from the disease and children as young as 7 diagnosed with it.
But it’s not only the typical American diet that’s to blame for the nation’s health crisis, though genetics make that diet more dangerous to many native peoples than to other ethnic groups. Even before fast food became ubiquitous, American Indians forced onto reservations were given U.S. government rations of white flour and lard. “A lot of people think of fry bread when they think of native foods,” Johnson says. “Fry bread is not traditional to any Native American people in the country.”
Which foods of the past were healthier? For the Tohono O’odham, it was tepary beans, a low-glycemic, high-protein menu staple. According to Johnson, the villages on the nation produced 1.5 million pounds of tepary beans in his grandparents’ heyday. “When we started TOCA, you could barely get 100 pounds of them,” Johnson says. They had to turn to a seed bank to start planting more beans.
TOCA slowly became the go-to place for information about all kinds of native foods. “You want seeds, go to TOCA, you want fences put up, go to TOCA, you want someone to teach you how to cook traditionally, go to TOCA … People were using us as a resource,” Johnson says. In turn, the tribal elders, including Johnson’s grandparents, were pleased to be able to contribute their knowledge to newly interested members of the community.
When in 2000, Johnson’s grandfather, Alex Pancho, died, Johnson asked his grandmother and aunts for permission to take over the fields his grandfather used to farm but eventually abandoned. They agreed, and what came to be known as Alex Pancho Memorial Farm was once again farmed in the traditional, flood-based way, relying on the monsoon rains rather than irrigation for water.
A few years later, TOCA leased more than 180 acres of a tribal farm that once grew cotton, and that already had dike systems and wells in place.
The smaller farm became an outdoor classroom and a place to gather for harvest and planting festivals; the larger one was devoted to growing staple crops like corn and tepary beans. At the same time, more and more community members were learning how to forage for desert plants.
Johnson’s idea of opening a restaurant began to seem like less of a pipe dream.
TOCA co-founder Tristan Reader had initially been dubious. (He’d been the pratical one, suggesting nonprofit status for the organization when Johnson wasn’t even sure what that was.) According to Johnson, “He kept saying, ‘Yeah, sure, right,’ whenever I brought up wanting a restaurant, but when we started the farms, he began to see it.”
Ingredients were now plentiful. The next step was figuring out how to create restaurant-worthy recipes from them.
Enter Mary Paganelli Votto, an author who moved to Tucson from New York City in 2001. Eager to learn about her adopted region’s native ingredients, she was surprised at how little written information existed. Researching an article about traditional Tohono O’odham foods, she approached Johnson at TOCA. “Terrol introduced me to Frances Manuel, one of the tribal elders,” says Paganelli Votto. “We clicked immediately, and had the same vision, which was also TOCA’s—preserve and share this knowledge.”
Paganelli Votto began compiling information, not only about wild desert plants and crops grown through traditional flood-plain farming but also about the culture surrounding them: the proper seasons for planting and harvesting and the associated songs, legends, and personal reflections of Manuel and other elders.
She also solicited and tested recipes. Lots of them. Not only traditional ones from the community, but also several from contemporary Southwest chefs known for their local focus. The list of eventual contributors reads like a culinary Who’s Who, including Lois Ellen Frank, Deborah Madison, and Janos Wilder, all winners of James Beard awards—the culinary world’s Oscar equivalent—and Loretta Oden, a chef and food historian who won an Emmy for her PBS show, “Seasoned with Spirit: A Native Cook’s Journey.”
The result was the beautifully illustrated From I’Itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Traditions, a comprehensive compilation of native foodways—and a repository of restaurant-worthy recipes.
Now TOCA had ingredients and menu options. All they needed was somewhere to put their restaurant.
That last piece of the puzzle fell into place in 2008, when the Tohono O’odham nation started revamping Basha’s Plaza—now Tohono O’odham Plaza—in Sells and offered TOCA a space.
That was exhilarating—and not a little scary. “None of us had any experience in actually running a restaurant,” Paganelli Votto says. “I had worked in restaurants and have a culinary background but I never started something and managed it from scratch.”
Paganelli Votto took a restaurant management class at Pima Community College, which helped her create a business plan. TOCA also got crucial assistance from Loretta Oden, who had opened the first native foods restaurant in Santa Fe, the Corn Dance Café.
In March 2009, a year after they were offered the space and more than a decade after Johnson conceived the idea, TOCA debuted the Desert Rain Café.
Sells is 60 miles southwest of Tucson on Highway 86, a scenic drive through pristine desert once you get past the traffic on Ajo Way and beyond Three Points. There is no sign for the restaurant turnoff; instructions to get there say simply, “Turn left onto the (unmarked) Main Street at the blue hospital sign; if you get to the Shell station you have gone too far.” But a few blocks after you make the left, it’s impossible to miss Tohono O’odham Plaza and the stacked brick columns, sunny yellow wall, and blue metal rain cloud on the patio below the Desert Rain Café sign.
Inside, the café is equally cheerful, light-filled, with colorful local art on the walls of the two rooms. You order food at a counter; it’s hard to decide among the many appealing possibilities. Luckily, there are only seven main items on the combined lunch and dinner menu, and a combo plate lets you try half orders of any two of them. Try a combo of tepary bean and short rib stew with cornbread and the prickly pear chicken sandwich; or the cholla bud citrus salad and the Desert Rain quesadilla, made with tepary beans and cheese and grilled on a whole wheat tortilla.
The presentations are beautiful, the food fresh and tasty. Nothing costs more than $8.95, and nothing is fried or made with sugar; agave syrup is used to sweeten items like the iced tea.
Not surprisingly, the community has embraced the café. Typical patrons are William Bruce and Cheryl Lopez, young professionals who work in the nation’s public defenders office. They eat here at least once a week they say, more often whenever possible. Both agree they like the food because “it’s light.” Lopez often opts for the chicken sandwich and one of the smoothies, which comes in flavors like chia berry and banana mesquite. Bruce favors the Caesar salad, chased by a mesquite oatmeal cookie.
For Lopez in particular, health is key to the café’s appeal. She has tried to get the food vendors outside the shopping plaza to serve more beans and lettuce, less meat, but concedes it’s hard to change old habits. “If people educate themselves, they can put together something that’s not bad for them,” Lopez says, “but for walking in and knowing you can get a healthy meal, this is the place.”
Brian Hendricks, who has managed the café for the past four years, can attest to the positive change it’s made in his own life. He started out as a dishwasher, figuring it was “just another job,” one he didn’t especially want. But he soon noticed the upbeat atmosphere in the restaurant, and the pleasure people got from the food at the catered events he helped out with. This made him care about the job—and it showed.
Although the café gets about 75 percent of its business from the community, visitors from all over make the trip to Sells. Hendricks says many come from Europe and Asia after reading about the cafe in airline magazines or glossy publications abroad. From September through February, there’s also a major influx of U.S. snowbirds in RVs.
Ironically, because the café is only open from Monday to Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., it’s difficult for residents of Tucson and Phoenix who work during the week to find time to come. Hendricks explains that, because retail is limited in the Tohono O’odham nation, “We just don’t have a customer base on the weekend. Everyone takes off to go shopping in Tucson. One weekend we had a tribal election on Saturday and we decided to stay open. We had only one customer.”
The guest chef dinners organized by Paganelli Votto and offered periodically throughout the year give locals a chance to sample the food in the evening. Participants have included Native American chefs from other cultures, Tucson restaurateurs, and executive chefs from resorts like Canyon Ranch. They can cook what they like as long as they use some Tohono O’odham ingredients.
But while this outreach to the local food community is fun, the soul of the enterprise remains its communal spirit. In addition to organizing special events, Paganelli Voto is in charge of menu development, recipe testing, and staff training. Hendricks handles day-to-day operations, and Alice Marquez and Cheryl Antone do the cooking. Johnson and other members of TOCA, as well as farmers and local foragers, work behind the scenes. “It’s a real collaboration,” Paganelli Voto says.
One of the most exciting things about the café is its observable impact on future generations. “You see kids here enjoying cholla buds, retraining their palates from the junk food,” Johnson says, “after they get over the ‘eew, we’re eating cactus’ reaction.” And Hendricks reports that children have a great time touring the cafe in one of the many after-school programs that TOCA organizes. “They love going into the freezer, and when they see me chopping fresh fruits and vegetables, they say ‘Ooh, I bet chef is going to cut his fingers off.’” He adds, “Whereas many local kids—like me—used to associate tepary beans with the boring mush they got at grandma’s house, now they see they taste good in lots of different dishes.”
Johnson dreamed of a restaurant because, he says, “I didn’t want us to be known as the place where everyone has diabetes. I wanted something our people could look at with pride.” The Desert Rain Café is everything its founder envisioned—and then some. ✜
Desert Rain Café. Tohono Plaza, Main Street, Sells. 520.383.4918. DesertRainCafe.com.
Edie Jarolim is a freelance writer and editor. Her articles have appeared in Eating Well, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, and Travel + Leisure. She is the author of three travel guides and one dog book.