The stretch of I-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles is a road paved with poor decisions. Every year, 8 million people make the drive, meaning that every Sunday afternoon there's roughly 153,000 people crammed into two lanes of highway. These people are tired, hungover, and reeking of stale Axe body spray. As you'd imagine, it's not very pleasant.
Yet just outside the border town of Primm, Nevada is an exit for Nipton Road. If you peel away from the crowd and head east for 15 minutes, straight into a desert landscape that seems to be void of any life apart from the occasional lizard sunning itself on the pavement, is the sleepy town of Nipton, California. It has a population of 60 and a "center of town" consisting of a general store, a cafe, and a one-story motel.
It also has quite possibly the best food in the desert.
Pull into the empty dirt lot outside of the El Oasis Cafe and it may seem abandoned. But walk to the side entrance and pull open the wooden door, and it's like you entered the best basement crash pad ever.
A pool table sits in the middle of the one-room seating area, a nearby broken-in couch providing a landing pad for whoever's next. Photos hang from the wall detailing stories from the desert's lush history. And tucked away in the corner is a glowing foil-laden box that wouldn't be out of place in the background of an Ed Wood film. Gather up enough nerve to look inside and you'll see a canopy of potted leafy green plants. This is the restaurant's "emergency indoor herb garden," in case the owners need to pluck something extra special for a dish.
Already, you get the sense this place is different.
Peek through the side windows and you'll see a small garden shielded from the harsh sun. Inside are plants growing tomatoes, cilantro, basil, spinach, lettuce, and kale. Even aloe vera, strawberries, onion and garlic once found a home inside of the garden. "We are still in the learning process about what will make it here," says Fernando Gamez, who has run the restaurant with his wife Susan since late 2012. "Our goal is to strictly grow non-GMO and organics."
Suddenly you understand why El Oasis is the perfect name for the cafe.
The cafe is the culmination of a lifelong dream. While living in the town's nearby RV park, Fernando and his wife used to host outdoor cookouts for neighbors. "Everyone encouraged me to open up a restaurant," he says. When word got out that the cafe was looking for someone to take over, they jumped at the possibility. And now they cater to everyone stopping through their tiny hamlet, a roster that includes tourists to the nearby Mojave National Preserve, Vegas revelers, nature lovers, stranded visitors needing a place to stay, and even video gamers. "Incredibly, there's been a few visiting families that have stayed here because the kids want to visit the famous Nipton in 'Fallout 3'."
Nipton wasn't always this sleepy. A plaque outside of the cafe tells the story of the town's birth in 1905, when a new rail line from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles chose Nipton as a stop, quickly making it a hub for miners and cattle ranchers. In the 1920s, silent film star Clara Bow regularly stayed in the motel next door with her husband Rex Bell, whenever the two wanted to get away from the stressors of old Hollywood.
But as the train gave way to the automobile, and the gold in the mines started to dwindle, so too did Nipton's population. For a long while the only reason anyone would have heard of it was as the answer to the trivia question: What general store sells the most tickets for the State of California Lottery? (The town's general store, right next door to El Oasis, had the mantle for years, before an office set up even closer to the Nevada border took away most of the business.)
Things started to change in 1984, when Malibu-based gold miner Gerald Freeman purchased the town in the hopes of making it an ecologically-friendly tourist village. In 1986, the run-down motel was restored. In 1998, the first prototype EcoLodge tented cabin for visitors of Mojave was built. In 2010, Freeman built a solar plant in an attempt to provide the town's power. And in 2012, the cafe was taken over by the Gamezes, who quickly installed vertical organic growing gardens of their own and continued the town's eco-friendly focus.
"Our goal," says Fernando, "is get to a point where more people will request non-GMO and organic food instead of just easing their hunger with whatever is put in front of them without questioning what they are consuming." It certainly helps when the food tastes just like grandma used to make.
In this case it's because, quite literally, grandma used to make it. The menu is full of traditional Mexican dishes like cerviche, burritos, and huevos rancheros -- the recipes straight from the cookbook of Fernando's grandmother, Maria Montes -- alongside a wide assortment of traditional American fare like pancakes, burgers and vegetable shakes. When I walked in, Fernando was cutting and cooking the cafe's homemade breakfast potatoes, made fresh every day.
This attention to detail isn't because of the burgeoning organic craze. It's done this way because it's the way it's always been done. "It's something I grew up doing as a child and taught to me by my mother and grandmother," he says. "It's instinct."
Photo from the Nipton website
Want recipes and food news emailed directly to you? Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!