When you think of the word ‘vacation’, various images might come to mind, like walking on the Great Wall of China, or taking all the kids to Wally World, or swimming in the sparkling waters of a pool on the deck of a cruise-ship, which is itself floating in the sparkling waters of a far-off ocean. Those are big vacations, big and expensive vacations. Then, there are small vacations. For example, a long drive down a peaceful desert highway to a part of the world you’ve never seen, but one that’s so close. Part of the charm of small vacations is seeing real communities up close and personal. You feel a renewed sense of discovery and authenticity when you interact with a new place, not merely as a tourist, but as a fellow traveler, or even as a neighbor from not so far away.
For those taking small vacations in southwest Arizona, a stop, or even a stay, in the small town of Ajo, provides a chance for this kind of experience. In the heart of the Sonoran desert, Ajo is a gateway to the Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Reserve, and point of entry to Sonoyta, Mexico (on your way to Rocky Point). It also has a unique gem of a central plaza which is a destination in itself.
An Oasis in the Desert
Compared to anything within 50 miles, The Ajo plaza is a lush green oasis in which you would love to be surrounded. About the size of a city block, the central Ajo plaza is really a small park, with grass, palm trees, and century-old award-winning architecture. It attracts migratory birds and migratory vacationers, as wells as local residents, who come to conduct business, and to talk with each other, and to enjoy the view.
One favorite spot in the plaza is the Oasis Cafe. It’s a small cafe open 8 to 6 Monday through Friday, and 9 to 3 on Saturday and Sunday. It’s locally and independently owned and run, as are all of the shops in the Ajo plaza. Here, patrons will find access to free Wi-Fi, a range of espresso coffees, surprisingly delicious sandwiches, soups and salads, beers, wines, ice-cream and more. It really is an oasis in the desert.
Something else notable is the location of the Oasis Cafe. The Cafe gets its name from its historic location, the old Oasis Theater that was a part of the original design of the old Ajo plaza. The Oasis Theater building was designed by Lescher & Mahoney, an architectural design firm known for their great theater designs, including the Orpheum theater in Phoenix. If it’s not too busy at the cafe, you can get a tour of the classic Oasis Theater space just by asking about it.
Currently it’s a unique place to stop and recharge on a drive from Phoenix or Tucson to Rocky Point.
Right now, plans are being drawn to remake the Oasis Cafe into a working theater, restaurant, and cinema space again. That will be realized over the next few years. Until then, and beyond, the Cafe remains what it has been, a regular stop for locals and a haven for knowledgeable travelers. Seeing the current location in its present state is seeing a piece of history, as the plans come together to rebuild the space. For day-trippers and locals alike, getting to know the Oasis Cafe now and the Ajo plaza is getting to see a piece of the history of southwest Arizona, and a piece of its future. If you are driving by anyway, you are if you’re driving from Phoenix to Rocky Point, don’t pass it by. Stop in and have a look. It will be a memorable point to your trip.
The favorites at The Oasis Cafe are its gourmet sandwich lunches. These include the Reuben sandwich, Red Chili Turkey sandwich with chipotle and roasted red pepper, and the JP Special, starring hot lean pastrami, cole slaw, and swiss cheese. The burgers also get rave reviews. You can get them all with handmade milkshakes or a beer in a frosted glass. Oh, and the lattes are also the best for many miles around, hot, iced, or flavored. Individual requests are welcome as everything is handmade to order, and you can order ahead of time by calling (520) 954-4455 for a quick take-out.
The pleasant beauty of the view while dining can’t be overstated. On a nice day, which what they have 90% of the time in Ajo, the central plaza is something to cherish. Weddings are held there. Many annual festivals take place there. Children play in the green grass, and for a town center, it’s the most restful and idyllic anywhere around.
The Cafe serves the whole community. Complete meals for the whole family are available at this historic location. Beer and wine are enjoyed in an outdoor patio or an inside dining room, and there are even options for kids, like the grilled cheese, or the Ajo-mini-burgers, tiny delicious hamburgers, which adults also love, and the Oasis Cafe will cater events in Ajo, large groups and small. Best of all, it’s not a fast-food pit-stop that will soon be forgotten as a standard on-the road drive-by, but a part of an experience that is one-of-a-kind. That’s because, as is increasingly understood, eating and shopping locally is the best way to get to know a place, and this place is worth getting to know.
Showtimes and location
The Oasis Cafe, (28 Plaza, Ajo, AZ) is open from 8 to 6 on weekdays and 9 to 3 on weekends. Groups are always accommodated at any time just by calling ahead. You can find it easily by driving into the Ajo plaza which can be found in downtown Ajo, right on highway 85.
If you’re interested in the idea of a local experience on your trip, or need a place to stop to recharge on the way to, or from, Phoenix or Tucson, put the Ajo plaza on your list, and in particular the Oasis cafe. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the staff, or the owner, – his name is Andrew and he is always there, about the town, what there is to do in Ajo, and anything else that is on your mind. The thing about a locally owned business is that what you find there is an increasingly rare vacation experience, that is an authentic local connection.