Photo courtesy of Gabriela Maya Bernadett
Cafe Santa Rosa, an O'odam-owned restaurant in Tucson, Arizona.

Native-Owned Restaurant Brings Tohono O’odham Flavor to Tucson

Gabriela Maya Bernadett

Café Santa Rosa is a charming little restaurant in the south side of Tucson, Arizona, that serves up southwestern fare with a Tohono O’odham twist.

Diners will find such familiar dishes as tacos, tostadas and quesadillas alongside O’odham classics like red chili, popovers (what O’odham call frybread), and cemait (O’odham tortillas).

The restaurant was founded three years ago by Sylvia Gonzales, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation from Schuk Toak District. Gonzales learned to cook from her mother, who taught her how to cook typical O’odham food like red chili, popovers, cemait, yeast bread and cowboy tortillas.

Photo courtesy

She says she never imagined she would open up a restaurant and was content to simply set up food booths at her local church until she happened upon an empty location in the south side of Tucson. Before she knew it, she was on the phone with the owner and agreeing to take it. She decided to name it after Santa Rosa Ranch, where her mother grew up on the reservation.

Three years later, Café Santa Rosa is thriving. True to its O’odham roots, traditional O’odham baskets, an I’itoi Ki, a sacred O’odham Man in the Maze symbol, and a kuipod, a traditional O’odham tool used for gathering cactus fruit, hang on the walls. The restaurant became so popular, in fact, that Gonzales recently expanded to accommodate new customers.

A traditional O'odham basket, I'itoi Ki (Man in the Maze) and kuipod (traditional tool used to gather cactus fruit) adorn the Café Santa Rosa's walls. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Maya Bernadett.

When asked what it means to have a restaurant in a major city owned and operated by an O’odham tribal member, Gonzales says, “It makes me feel proud for them [O’odham] that I can represent them in this way. I feel like they feel proud. Like they feel like this is kind of representing us.”

As for the future of the restaurant, Gonzales is just getting started. “Cooking has always been in my blood,” she says. “I just enjoyed pleasing people that way, cooking for them.” She plans to expand eventually and, in the meantime, continue spreading the word and drawing as many people as possible.

Café Santa Rosa is located at 3303 South 12th Avenue, Tucson, Arizona 85713

Hours are Tuesday through-Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays 8 .a.m. to 2 p.m.

More information can be found here.

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