Traditionally the Tohono O'odham peoples learned to live in and appreciate this arid, unforgiving land, learning to cultivate crops when the rains come and to harvest the cactus and other plants of the region. But modern times brought processed foods and too much sugar. Today the reservation has one of the highest diabetes rates in the nation, with about 60% of her people with this disease.
With this in mind, the community is looking at ways to counter the trend. One of those ideas was a restaurant featuring the traditional ingredients of the desert. I've eaten there twice, most recently with 8 friends who met their for a late afternoon lunch which evolved into a discussion with Ivalee Pablo, the chef, a photo shoot with her and tour of the kitchen. Learning to cook from her grandfather, a resident of the reservation, Ivalee cooked at a number of important Tucson restaurants. Now she showcases her skills in the special restaurant.
Every item on the menu includes at least one native ingredient. It might be agave nectar to sweeten the lemonade, or native squash filling in enchilladas. On Thursday when I was there with Chris, Sally and Gerry, Ajo, Chuck and Nan, and Margy and Frank, the daily special was prickly pear glazed pork ribs. Nan declared them the best ribs she had ever had. They were tender, delicately seasoned, and delightful. The hummus is made from native tepary beans, there is a cholla bud pico de gallo, salads are served with a prickly pear vinaigrette, and deserts include mesquite (used for flour in their baked goods) and oatmeal cookies. I note the breakfast menu includes a homemade granola of mesquite, agave nectar and squash seeds.
I've tried appetizers, a sampler plate and the ribs. All of them were excellent. The prices are reasonable, and the setting is simple but pleasant with both indoor and outdoor seating.
Besides the efforts of TOCA, the Tohono O'Odham Community Action organization, to set up this restaurant and other programs, native foods are now being featured on the menus in the local schools.
If you are traveling Hwy 87 plan to stop in Sells. The restaurant is only open weekdays for breakfast and lunch. It is located in downtown Sells, in the small shopping center where the Basha's grocery store and post office are located. A large empty lot next to the shopping center is handy for RVers
Photos are by Chris Nelson. He photographed while I interviewed Ivalee for an article I hope to complete soon.