Rock Your Soul at Sonora’s Heart Rock Cafe

The Heart Rock Café is deceptively unpretentious. Its sign shows a simple red heart, and proclaims it is the Heart Rock Internet Café. A sign aimed at the foot traffic checking out the entertainment in the park across the street proclaimed that hot dogs and ice cream were available inside. What hooked me in was the amazing ice cream cones I kept seeing people carrying, so I had to see what flavors were available. Once inside, I didn’t see the ice cream at once, but the sandwich bar was so inviting I had to check the thick and hearty sandwiches they were taking to the tables.

The whole place is bright and cheery, with hardwood tables in the front, near the sandwich bar, and what looked suspiciously like a modified kitchen behind a counter at the rear. As I headed over to check the ice cream counter, I noticed people were working at computer terminals, and realized it must be the Internet lounge. While the hot dogs had sounded like a possible snack, the sandwich selections looked so good we decided it was time for dinner.

The sandwiches here come in Biblical themes, and of course the “Jonah” features tuna. After a good deal of debate, my fiance and I settled on the Pilgrim’s Progress, a turkey and avocado with lots of trimmings, on swirled rye bread, and The Prodigal, a hot pastrami on wheat. Sandwiches come with your choice of chips or a green salad, so we both choose the green salad, a substantial blending of dark green lettuces at a perfect degree of crispness. The dressing comes in a small muglike container on the side, allowing you to apply just the right amount of salad. (I also applied some of my raspberry vinaigrette to my sandwich—mmm!) We also ordered a two-scoop ice cream cone, for later, having been tempted by the Blue Bunny ice cream in the freezer counter.
Looking for an empty table where we could wait for our sandwiches, we discovered stairs leading down into a lower room next door, complete with games, a stage, and bookcases full of different Bible translations and books with religious themes. The light began to dawn that perhaps the Heart Rock had a religious affiliation, talking to a couple people confirmed it was affiliated with one of the local churches. Based on how everyone seemed to know almost everyone there, I gathered it was also a locals hangout. A sign on the wall indicated we were sitting in the “Heart Rock Community Theater,” though this  theater featured dining tables and lots of upholstered overstuffed chairs around the periphery.

As we waited for our sandwiches, perusing books from the case, I noticed there was a band setting up. The sign “Fiddles Etc.” boded well, as I love good country fiddling. My mother’s Uncle Bill had been a country fiddler, as have several friends. Fiddling is the kind of music that can get you feeling good no matter what! I once heard someone describe old time country music as being alive, and a good fast fiddle tune is about as alive as it gets!

The girl from the snack bar brought our sandwiches and salad down to us. No wimpy snack sandwiches here! These were thick and substantial, pinned together with toothpicks. The bread was thick and hearty, the rest of the ingredients fresh and tasty. I have rarely had as good a turkey and avocado sandwich, and that’s saying something. The side salad came with its dressing in a mini-mug on the side, and I not only dressed my salad, but drizzled some on my sandwich, as well.

As we sat eating, an older, dark-haired woman, dressed in brilliant red, came up and introduced herself as Blanche Aphecetche, and asked us to guess her age. Andrew, my fiance, looked her over and said “three score and ten.” “What?” she said. “That’s seventy,” he explained. She laughed delightedly. “Add fifteen years!” she declared triumphantly. We both assured her that she certainly didn’t look 85 at all! She settled down to chat with us, and told us all about how she had met her second husband, a Basque sheepherder, when they were both forty. She then told us about how she had researched written up her family genealogy going back to the 1300’s, as well as writing her autobiography, and wanted to know all about our geneaology as well!  Eventually, seeing someone she knew, she buzzed off to greet them, and then came back introduced him to us as one of the band members. Having now been personally introduced, of course we had to stay for the concert!

The band “Fiddles Etc.”, a locals group of two fiddlers, a guitarist, and a woman on electric bass, was like a lively slice of a lost era. They treated us to polkas and ragtime, and a version of “The Old Rugged Cross” that made you want to get up and dance to it, if you weren’t afraid that might be irreverent! We did get up and dance to The Tennessee Waltz, since there was enough space near the door. The door, open to the street, brought in a steady stream of passers-by from Magic of the Night, who would stop to listen, and usually stayed for a while. People were clapping and tapping their feet to the music, and Blanche was right up there at the front by the stage, moving to the music with the best of them, though she didn’t have a partner. After The Tennessee Waltz, she cruised back to our table, and let us know that she and her husband used to love to go out dancing. “I know eighteen different waltzes,” she proclaimed. “I love to dance!”  She turned confidential. “I’m known as a social butterfly.” This was no surprise!

It was a strange juxtaposition, with the growl of modern electric music coming from “Chains Required,” the band playing in the park across the road, contrasting with cowboy songs and an old time Country music vibe inside the Heart Rock Community Theater. People pulled up chairs at our table and shook our hands and introduced themselves, something you don’t often see in this modern world.

It was hard to leave the music long enough to go get our ice cream, but that ice cream was looking tempting! It was backed up, and they apologized for the line, but said if we wanted to go back to the concert, they could bring it to us. Delivery for a cone? Wow, that’s service! They had obviously been doing a lot of business that day, as several flavors had actually run out! We picked out Cookies and Cream and Bunny Tracks, a combination of vanilla ice cream with peanut butter and chocolate chunks, and headed back to the concert.

Somewhere along the way, while listening to “Under the Double Eagle” and “San Antonio Rose,” it struck me that my great-grandparents would have been quite comfortable at that concert. Was this what it was like during the Great Depression, when the community all gathered around to forget their troubles and lose themselves in music? Was this the sort of thing Woodie Guthrie sang about? I seriously think it was.

So, if you’re passing through Sonora, check out the Heart Rock Café and Community Theater. They say they have live entertainment at the Community Theater every Friday night, usually music. The Blue Bunny ice cream is delectatable, the prices are cheap, and the scoops are enormous. And maybe Blanche will stop by your table at tell you she’s a social butterfly. I’m sure she’ll be there, dressed in red, moving to the music.

Heart Rock Café
Coffee, Music, and More!
1 South Washington Street
Sonora, CA 95370
(209) 533-1221

Jane Beckman

Jane Beckman is a reformed workaholic who has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Her passions are food, wine, cooking, travel, and history, in no particular order. In fact, they tend to feed into each other. She might be found cooking over a fire at a historic adobe one weekend, eating crabcakes at a 19th century hotel in downtown Gettysburg on another, or getting lost on a back road, only to find an amazing park or hidden gem of a winery. Her family's love of exploring back roads has always influenced her, as did her father's love of exotic foods. Living in Hawaii at the age of 5, she acquired a taste for poke, pickled octopus, and poi. Japan hooked her on mochi and udon noodles, as well as Japanese kimono. When she was growing up on the Central Coast of California, her parents taught her how to be a "resident tourist" and find things even the locals didn't know about. She continues in that tradition, keeping an eye out for the unique and unexpected.

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