BELEN – Owning a restaurant has long been a dream for Israel Rojas, and now he has two.
The owner of the Oasis Cafe in Rio Communities opened his second restaurant in Belen in November 2020, at 418 S. Main St., formerly home to Hondumex.
Rojas, who immigrated from Mexico, began his journey in the kitchen in 2004 in Albuquerque, working in every role from kitchen manager, sous chef all the way to executive chef.
He moved to Belen almost a decade ago and worked at the Tierra Del Sol Golf Club as a kitchen manager for six years before he opened the original Oasis Cafe two years ago in May 2019.
“In Rio Communities, which we started in May of 2019, I figured out the food based on what I knew people liked in the community to put the menu together,” Rojas said. “A lot of the customers were people from the community, people from the golf course.
“Early on, we had to say, ‘OK, let’s focus on the food from the community.’ We started with fast food, American food and added in a few Hispanic items like street tacos, chimichangas, enchiladas.
“Our burgers are really popular, the Reuben and the Philly also. From there, we added healthy foods – the salads. We’re excited people like the food.”
The opportunity to expand the business and open in Belen was an exciting one for Rojas, but the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt him and his business a tougher set of cards than they would have received otherwise.
Two days after the Belen location opened, New Mexico shut down sit-down dining again as COVID-19 cases spiked across the state, and the state entered a two-week reset.
With indoor down dining still shut down due to Valencia County’s status as a red county, the restaurant is exclusively offering takeout.
“It’s tough but people like the food, no complaints,” Rojas said. “We’re just waiting for when we can reopen. Hopefully, we can do a grand opening at that point.”
With the restrictions in place, many of the ideas that Rojas has for the space will have to wait.
Some of those ideas are things that have proven successful in Rio Communities, such as a Sunday brunch, while others, like a banquet room in the back of the restaurant, will have to wait.
Rojas has always done a lot of catering, pulling from his background working at Tierra Del Sol as well as the Tanoan Country Club in Albuquerque. He plans to continue with that piece of his business, serving a wide variety of local groups at meetings and banquets.
With his new space, Rojas hopes to be able to host even larger groups in the future, and has discussed closing the restaurant for private parties on one or two nights a week at some point in the future to take advantage of the space.
With the large lot that his location sits on, Rojas has the idea to potentially host a flea-market style event in the future, allowing vendors to come set up and sell their goods while feeding people from the restaurant.
At this point, any such plan lies in the future, but Rojas already has plenty of ideas to make the most of his new location.
There is a new menu for the Belen location, with more of a focus on the Hispanic and American cuisines that have been the hallmark of the Oasis Cafe.
When he was scouting for his second location, Rojas considered locations across the county, including in Los Lunas before he finally settled on his location in Belen.
“My friends in Albuquerque want me to open up there, but one thing at a time,” Rojas laughed. “We’ll start here and see where it goes. It’s one of my dreams to have a restaurant.
“I opened a little cafe in Albuquerque about 10 years ago, and business was fine, but I wasn’t able to be 100% into it. Now here in Belen, I appreciate everyone here so much.
“We have customers come from the golf course and they’re all so supportive and happy for me in this job.”