Rare snow in downtown Joshua Tree. Ricochet and Crossroads Cafés pictured.
Whether you’re headed into the National Park, or in town to check out a cultural event, Joshua Tree has a surprising amount of quality restaurants for locals and visitors alike.
The well-established center of the Joshua Tree restaurant scene – and, arguably, the entire town – is the Crossroads Café. This funky establishment has a diverse and creative menu. A must is the simple appetizer “Chips and Baja,” which is blue corn tortilla chips with two dipping salsas that share one bowl: a handmade tomato salsa and a blue cheese dip. The salads are first rate, the coffee is locally roasted, smoothies are made to order, the sandwiches are large and unique, and there’s a wide variety of vegetarian dishes on the menu (try the “tempeh sashimi”). The décor features the work of many local artists, and on occasion you can catch a live acoustic performance by local musicians. Be warned: the reputation of this great place has reached far and wide, and since there is no table service – you have to stand in line to place your order, you may have to wait before you actually put fork to mouth.
Just around the corner is the Park Rock Café, in the same structure as the National Park’s Information Center. A daily special menu board greets you as you enter, and this is usually the way to go. The food is good and somewhat heartier than other J-Tree spots, and you won’t have trouble finding a seat. But be cautious, especially if it's crowded; many people find the service here unsatisfactory.
Across the street is the Country Kitchen. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, and even less so when you enter. The trick here is “don’t order off the menu!” If you look up on the walls, you will see a large variety of off-the-menu “specialties,” and this is what you want. A variety of asian-inspired tofu “bowls,”are really quite excellent. A good lunch option if you don’t want to fight the crowds at Crossroads.
A few doors down from Country Kitchen is Teacakes Bakery. Make no mistake, this is an fully operational on-the-premises bakery, as you’ll be able to tell the moment you open the door. The smell of fresh-baked bread hits you hard, drags you in, and it’s almost impossible to leave without a little something for yourself. Fresh-baked loaves of bread are ready every morning at 10am. The Pain au Chocalat (chocolate croissant) is sumptuous, and the house specialty, the “Morning Glory” muffin, is exceptional: an unlikely combination of ingredients including zucchini, pineapple, and walnut, baked to a perfect exterior crispness, and dusted with the lightest snowfall of powdered sugar and… oh man, I think I’m going to jump into my truck and run down there for one right now! Teacakes also serves a variety of coffees and – obviously – teas.
On the south side of the street, almost next door to Crossroads Café, is Ricochet Café. This tiny little corner shop serves exceptional coffee – my favorite roaster in California, Monkey and Son. They have baked goods for breakfast, and they make a variety of sandwiches and salads. They also sell wine by the bottle. There are only two tiny tables though, so this is also a better spot to hit on the way into the Park if you’re daytripping it and want something better than grocery store fare.
The latest addition to Joshua Tree’s restaurant lineup is the Natural Sisters. They too provide good coffee and smoothies in the morning, and sandwiches and salads in the day. They stand out in that they are a fully vegetarian (though not vegan) restaurant. Try the tofu egg salad sandwich. It was served with a side of curried brown rice and roasted beets. Yummy.
October marks the arrival of the beautiful weather in Joshua Tree, and it is no coincidence that it also brings Pie for the People. This unusual food provider is actually “pizza in a truck.” The proprietors, a young couple originally from the New York area, bought an oversized food truck, loaded in a full-sized pizza oven, and took off across America for a great pizza adventure. They spend most of the year following the music festival circuit, and have been seen at everything from Coachella to Bonaroo. But in October, they land here, in Joshua Tree, because, well, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth.” They use only organic ingredients, and best of all, they deliver. And when I say deliver, I don’t mean they show up at your door in some tiny beater car with half-hour old pizza. They will actually drive the entire truck to your door, and pull the pizza out of the oven and hand it to you on your front porch! I warned them that it would involve tracking over 2 or 3 miles of desert dirt roads to get to my cabin, and they said “cool.” Unforgettable – sitting in the desert, staring at the stars outlining the Joshua Tree in my front yard, and up rolls a giant pizza wagon, with an organic veggie pizza – extra fresh jalapeno, please – just for me.
There is a “second tier” of restaurants in Joshua Tree. These places are not bad – they are simply not frequented by people looking for a memorable meal. They service the locals who are looking for a change of pace. The Joshua Tree Saloon serves up a $6 burger/beer/fries combo daily, and has a weekly “steak” bbq. The food is actually decent, but be warned – this is a real “roadhouse” bar, and it is not uncommon to see marine “fade” haircuts, bikers, and other sundry desert rats gracing its doorways. There’s also Royal Siam, serving typical Thai fare, Sam’s Pizza, serving typical pizza, and, if you must, a Subway. There’s also Santana’s Mexican Restaurant, whose food isn’t much to speak of, but they’re open 24 hours, and, well, you never know.
In all, the Joshua Tree restaurant scene is small but thriving, built largely on a strong devotion to the beloved vegetable, and a commitment to fresh and organic ingredients. All in all, an enjoyable respite from the roadside fast food joints that dot much of the California desert.