Desert Rain Café

By Maryal Miller | Photo by Edward McCain

Sells, Arizona, isn’t exactly on the beaten path. In fact, it’s so far from the path that the tiny town on the Tohono O’odham Nation isn’t really “on the way” to anywhere. That said, there’s a new place in Sells that’s ripe for enthusiasts of the road less traveled. It’s called Desert Rain Café, and it’s open for breakfast and lunch, both of which are worth a try.

The brainchild of Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), the café opened in March 2009 in an effort to combat the growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes, which afflicts the Native American community. The plan was to reintroduce the people to “the bounty of the Sonoran Desert and the many indigenous foods that have been used by the Tohono O’odham people for centuries,” says Mary Paganelli, the café’s consulting chef. “Some research shows that the move away from traditional foods and lifestyle has contributed to the epidemic … many of the Tohono O’odham traditional foods are naturally low on the glycemic index and have blood-sugar-lowering qualities.”

Every item on the menu incorporates at least one such traditional ingredient, some of which might seem a little adventurous to the mainstream, including mesquite meal, prickly pear, agave syrup and the daunting cholla bud. In addition, TOCA’s own farm produces the tepary beans and squash for the café, so they go straight from topsoil to table.

But before you succumb to sweat-inducing flashes of Bear Grylls in some inhospitable Venezuelan jungle, downing live slugs for their purported protein value, Paganelli encourages, “Don’t be afraid!” The kitchen is manned by some of the most seasoned chefs on the rez.

Once prepared, the offerings aren’t at all scary. Mesquite meal is used in baked treats like the delectable Cinnamon Squash Agave Muffin and the massive Mesquite Oatmeal Cookie, adding a surprisingly pleasant graham cracker-like quality. The pico de gallo, which is prepared by Tucson’s Canyon Ranch, uses the texturally intimidating cholla bud to lend a smoky, citrus flavor. It’s a recommended must-try. So is the café’s fresh Agave Lemonade, which is chilled on ice in a giant jar placed on the front counter. It’s sweet, not tart. The tepary bean — reportedly the most heat- and drought-tolerant bean in the world — is found in several selections, like the White Tepary Bean and Short Rib Stew, and the Brown Tepary Bean Quesadilla, one of Paganelli’s favorite dishes.

But perhaps the best gift that I’itoi — the Tohono O’odham creator god — has bestowed upon diners at Desert Rain are the prices, which make up for the extra gas money you’ll spend getting there. And if that’s not enough to inspire you to make a trek off the beaten path, keep in mind that all profits from the café support TOCA’s education mission.