By TOM STAUFFER
NOGALES, SON. – If you’ve never made the short walk to La Roca from the main shopping district, on that first trip you’ll no doubt be thinking you’ve been given bum directions.
You cross to the wrong side of the train tracks and through the red-light district, where the doorman of at least one venue will hand you promotional material as you pass. This is a handbill you don’t want to forget and leave with your other papers for your 8-year-old daughter to later discover, as it prominently displays the night’s headliner, a photo that leaves little to the imagination and you quite a bit to explain.
One street east of the debauchery, you’ll encounter a stately oasis of magnolia, cobblestone and stucco attached to the bottom of a cliff, the home of La Roca Restaurant Bar since 1972.
Here, the tuxedo-clad waiters are distinguished, polite and prompt. Most are La Roca veterans of least a dozen, if not two dozen, years, notes manager David Rodriguez, who himself started there 35 years ago.
We learned the hard way to trust their advice. We were instantly intrigued by the avocado cocktail ($6.50) and ignored our waiter’s efforts to steer us toward the guacamole. While its generous chunks of avocado served in the bowl were very fresh, that’s all there was to it, other than a bowl of sauce that seemed a combination of mayonnaise – actually more like Miracle Whip salad dressing – and ketchup. In hindsight, this offbeat appetizer probably is offered for those not comfortable with Mexican food.
After that we trusted our waiter and it paid off. The pollo en mole ($10) was an enormous order of chicken drowning in luxurious mole and flanked, but not dominated by refried beans and flavorful rice with bits of carrots and peas. While the mole and everything else at La Roca is obviously toned down for the clientele – about 90 percent of whom are gringos from El Norte, Rodriguez says – it was rich, not too sweet and slightly grainy, the way real mole should be.
The chile rellenos entree ($8.50), was two huge cheese-filled mild chiles, each large enough that you’d expect to find one flying solo on the plates of most restaurants, and rice and beans. The chiles were laden with so much cheese that my companion removed some to enjoy them to her liking.
We got two excellent cups of coffee with two excellent desserts – a traditional flan ($4) and a tarta de limón ($4). The gargantuan lemon meringue pie of sorts stood a good 5 inches high, had a thin, baked sugar shell, a superb homemade crust and a unique dense filling that was tart and creamy to the point of ice cream.
Add a Coke and an iced tea, and dinner came to a grand total of $41.41, leaving us with far too much money to blow on the other side of the tracks.
AT A GLANCE
What: La Roca Restaurant Bar
Address and phone: 91 Calle Elias, Nogales, Son.,
Specialty: Sonoran-style fare, seafood from Guaymas
Vegetarian options: chile rellenos ($8.50), many others
Desserts: flan de vanilla, tarta de limón ($4 each) and many others
Currency: cash, Mastercard and Visa
Children’s menu: no
Most recent health inspection: The state of Sonora conducts regular restaurant inspections but we couldn’t track down La Roca’s. Still the dining room and bar were clean, close to immaculate. Plus, if it’s good enough for “The Duke,” it’s plenty good for us.
LA ROCA: HISTORY AND ATMOSPHERE
Since 1972, La Roca has occupied the second floor of what was built in the late 19th century as a boarding house, says manager David Rodriguez, who was 16 when he started as a waiter at the restaurant when it opened.
Its posh white stucco and thick arches meld into the cliff face, which serves as the rear wall of the main dining room. Opposite, a row of tables clings to huge, arching windows offering a villa-style view of the cityscape.
Cool, dark and palatial inside, it’s one of the ritzier places you’ll find on either side of the border.
And it has attracted celebrities from American movie stars John Wayne and James Colburn to Mexican politicians, such as Luis Donaldo Colosio.