In a small, artsy Arizona town less than twenty miles from the Mexican border lies the best restaurant you haven’t heard of yet. It’s called Velvet Elvis Pizza Company, and it’s dedicated to bringing customers delicious, wholesome foods in an atmosphere that honors both kitsch and tradition.
Owner and Executive Chef Cecilia San Miguel opened her restaurant on December 12, 1998 in the small town of Patagonia, Arizona, population 850. San Miguel learned to cook from her Ecuadorian grandmother, and refuses to compromise her creative vision and dedication to quality, organic ingredients for the sake of profits.
Patagonia is the kind of city you could blink and miss, but if you did, it would be your loss. It’s filled with boutiques and galleries, and the kind of small-town friendliness that’s almost enough to make you swear off cities for good. After a full day of looking at local art, pizza sounded delicious. Some friends recommended Velvet Elvis, and I decided to give it a try.
With a name like Velvet Elvis, I was expecting a greasy slice in a crowded restaurant. But the restaurant isn’t named after Elvis, explains San Miguel. It’s more of a nod to the kind of bad art popularized in the crossroads of Mexican/American cultures. The restaurant was colorful and intimate, and San Miguel immediately introduced herself and some of her favorite menu items. The dough is warm, chewy whole wheat that’s made by hand every day. They also bake their own bread, and hand roast peppers one at a time. I ordered the combo calzone (prosciutto di parma, garlic, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, smoked gouda, herbed cream cheese and mozzarella), which was incredible and extremely reasonably priced. The restaurant also offers many vegetarian options and a juice bar, as well as the specialty Inca Quinoa Pizza. Baked in a deep iron skillet, and made with quinoa and wheat flour, fresh vegetables, and a creamy vodka red sauce, the dish requires 24 hours notice to prepare.
While I was waiting for my food, I had the chance to admire the art on the walls. There are bright examples of the “bad art” the restaurant is named for, large oil paintings of the Lady of Guadalupe and the King himself, but there are also beautiful handmade tapestries. The man responsible for these woven works of art is John Igini. He combined the native Navajo method of weaving with the alpaca fiber used by indigineous Andean farmers. He farms the alpacas and hand-dyes their wool using organic dyes. The wool is then sent to native artists to weave into beautifully soft designs, each one taking up to a year to complete.
I walked out of Velvet Elvis completely satisfied, and excited to share my discovery with others. Turns out, I’m not alone in appreciating this desert gem. In 2005, the restaurant was declared an Arizona Treasure.
If you ever find yourself in Patagonia, stop by Velvet Elvis. You’ll be glad you did!