Drive an hour south from Tucson, walk five minutes past the international border, and you’ll find an experience you just can’t recreate stateside.
La Roca el Balcon Restaurant and Bar sits in the 1890s hacienda Casa Margot, nestled into the northwest facing cliffs of downtown Nogales, Sonora. The main dining room extends seamlessly into the hillside’s natural caves, giving the restaurant its name: The Rock. In front of the restaurant, 25-foot magnolia trees extend from root-buckled cobblestone sidewalks; a gurgling fountain welcomes guests into the central courtyard. The 115-year-old cut-stone walls, multiple fireplaces, and massive wooden beams of Casa Margot ooze history. Many nights the halls and stairwells echo with the sounds of wandering trovadores. Classically trained waiters clad in white suits and black bowties present hand-painted menu boards tableside, serving up some of the region’s best seafood and Sonoran style cuisine.
La Roca Restaurant—family-run and owned for 42 years—sources seasonal vegetable produce from the fertile Sinaloa Valley, fresh seafood from Guaymas and Los Mochis, and select beef from the foothills of the Sierra Madre. But outstanding eats aside, La Roca el Balcon captures the elusive spirit of Ambos Nogales (Both Nogales).
The twin cities of Nogales have aspired to be thought of as one since the railroad depot for Nogales popped up at the border in 1882. However, the cruel social, political, and economic divide that spans the political boundary leaves Nogales far from unified. And it’s been that way for a hundred years. In July of 1918, the Nogales Herald naïvely proclaimed Nogales united and the border imaginary. A month later, the Battle of Ambos Nogales proved it terribly wrong. Started by an inadvertent customs dispute, the battle left many dead, mostly Mexicans. As a direct result of the battle, the United States and Mexico agreed to divide the community with a chain-link fence, the first permanent fence along the border.
“The tragedy of the passport requirement is that it prevents a lot of people from crossing the border. We lose something as a nation when so many people can’t experience another country.”
Casa Margot, built in 1899, survived the Battle of Ambos Nogales. In 1972, it was transformed from a boarding house into the vibrant La Roca Bar and Restaurant by the late, visionary Jimmy Wilson. In the 1960s, Wilson started Wilson Produce, a Nogales-based produce distribution company handling marketing and sales for the family farm in Estación Bamoa, Sinaloa. Today, Wilson Produce provides distribution for a handful of farms in northern Mexico.
La Roca thrived for almost 30 years until Sept. 11, 2001, touched off a 21st century incarnation of the Battle of Ambos Nogales. “It was like someone flipped a switch. The people stopped coming. A paralysis fell upon the community,” says Alicia Bon Martin, Wilson’s niece and La Roca’s current owner. For the next decade, fears of terrorism, perceptions of drug violence, and intense border security devastated La Roca. The year 2008 was particularly brutal—the U.S. economy plunged into recession, and new passport requirements for travel to Mexico and Canada took effect. “The tragedy of the passport requirement is that it prevents a lot of people from crossing the border. We lose something as a nation when so many people can’t experience another country,” says Chris Martin, Alicia’s husband and co-owner of La Roca.
Pouring salt into the wound, from late 2008 to 2009, Mexico devalued the peso by almost 25 percent.
Standing at an economic crossroads there were two things Alicia wasn’t willing to do: relocate to the United States or sacrifice quality. “We’re sticking to linens. We’re sticking to high quality ingredients. And we’re not moving to Tubac,” says Alicia defiantly. “When people suggest we move La Roca from Mexico to the U.S. it’s like a knife in my heart. How can I take my employees to Tubac. We’ve been together for so long, how could I leave them behind?” Elvira’s Restaurant, in business in Nogales, Sonora, since 1927, closed under the same economic pressures in 2008 and successfully reopened in Tubac in 2009.
“Our saving grace was we owned the building and Wilson Produce was profitable. If La Roca was our only source of income we would have folded,” says Alicia.
La Roca survived to see its 40th anniversary in 2012 and chose a counterintuitive way to celebrate. It offered free food, sending out free breakfast coupons good for the entire year. “Those times were incredibly humbling, and for us it was a way to give thanks to those who stood by us,” says Alicia. “Sending out the free breakfast coupons felt good. It was fun.”
Alicia Bon Martin, like La Roca, embodies the spirit of Ambos Nogales. The descendant of farmers from Bamoa, Sinaloa, Alicia was born in Nogales, Ariz. For her entire life she’s been enmeshed in the lives and economies of both sides of the political line that divides the city—not to mention in La Roca itself. La Roca “is not a restaurant—it’s something else,” says Alicia. “La Roca is an emotional connection to my family and my past. And to my Uncle Jimmy.”
The Wilson family’s food heritage in the region spans four generations and, through La Roca, links farm to fork. Within three days, produce from the Wilson family farm in Bamoa finds its way into an entrée at La Roca. Mini sweet peppers make their way into dishes such as Brochettes (shish kebabs), Camarones Escabeche, Pollo en Salsa Coco, and Filete Meditariana. Staff recommendations include the Tampequeña, a plate-sized cut of Sonoran beef that comes with chile relleno, rice, beans, and rajas; Mochomos, crispy shredded beef that’s been flash-fried and is served with tortillas and lime; and Salmon Oaxaca, grilled salmon served with a mild roasted green chili sauce. Quench your thirst with a fresh-squeezed lime and Cazadores tequila margarita or the milder Roca Rica, a sangria margarita, a beautiful pink cocktail less acidic than its pure citrus cousin. Top off the experience with a seasonal, house-made sorbet or ice cream.
The political and economic battle of Ambos Nogales churns on, yet La Roca finds itself on the mend. “We’ve not only turned the corner but we have some momentum,” says Alicia. “Our focus is no longer survival but on strengthening the foundation for the next generation, for my children.” Through tough times, La Roca has been forced to reinvent itself, but the history, ambiance, and classic flavor endure. After 42 years La Roca el Balcon remains the place to get swept away by the romanticism of Old Mexico, where the one-hour drive south of Tucson and the five-minute walk into Sonora are a part of the magic. ✜
Moses Thompson coordinates the gardening program at Manzo Elementary and has his sights set on growing school gardening programs across Tucson.
To get to La Roca from the U.S. side of the border, park at one of the reputable pay lots across the street from Burger King for $4 or curbside on Morley Avenue. When crossing between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., use the Morley Gate Port of Entry (the only pedestrian-only international crossing in the United States)—and don’t forget your passport. Morley Gate is one block east of the DeConcini Port of Entry and spits you out on Plutarco Elías Calles, the street that passes La Roca.
When crossing at DeConcini, go through the turnstile and follow the covered walkway away from the border until you reach the street—directly ahead is the pedestrian crossing over the railroad tracks. Heading up the ramp, look left (east) and through the cottonwood trees you’ll see the large neon La Roca sign extending from the rooftop, set against the cliffs. Menu prices are in U.S. dollars, and La Roca accepts cash and major credit cards. For those interested in extending a visit, consider the recently remodeled Fray Marcos Hotel, a five-minute walk west of La Roca.
La Roca Restaurant. Plutarco Elías Calles. Nogales, Sonora. 520.313.6313 LaRocaRestaurant.com.