She was known as “Mama Rosa,” and her green and red enchilada sauces attracted tens of thousands through the decades to her Tempe family restaurant, Rosita’s Fine Mexican Food.
Rosa Morena Keeme was a beloved fixture in the community. Rosita’s has been an anchor on the west side of Tempe. At the Mexican restaurant, Rosa could proudly use old family recipes, lovingly created and made with the finest ingredients.
“She’s always been a good cook,” one of her sons, the late Narcizo Keeme, a retired Rosita’s manager, told the Tribune in 2006 for an article about his mother winning the Tempe Chamber of Commerce’s coveted Spirit of Tempe Award for lifetime service, dedication, and contributions to the community.
“She started to make her sauce mild and tasty, and people began to like it,” he said. She was known for instructing every new employee that “the customer always comes first no matter what” and for treating employees like family, he said.
Rosa Keeme’s story begins deep in the tumult of Mexican history. In the early 1900s, her mother, Maria Jesus Calles-Moreno was whisked from her home in Hermosillo, put on a mule, and taken to the mountains of Cananea amid political upheaval. Her uncle, Plutarco Elias Calles, who would later serve as the 47th president of Mexico (1924-28) sent the family into seclusion. The family had to struggle for survival. Her mother,
provided for the family by preparing meals for travelers and workers.
She met a young soldier from the U.S. Cavalry, Charles Edward Kuehme, whom she married in 1906. They moved to the Bisbee-Douglas area of Arizona. Rosa was born on February 7, 1911, in Cananea. The family official emigrated to the U.S. in 1951. With five children, she moved to Tempe where Rosa worked for several restaurants. On days off, the family would pick cotton in area fields.
Her son, Narcizo, would tell her, “Someday, Mama, there will be a restaurant with Rosita’s name on it.” So, it came to be that in 1963, the year she became a naturalized U.S. citizen, Rosa opened the doors to her namesake restaurant at 5th Street and Beck Avenue in Tempe. Her family had pooled their resources to make it possible. On the opening night at the one-room restaurant, customers dined at four tables – one of them the family dinette table from home. The Rosita website notes, “Although lacking in glamour, it still had the most important ingredient – love.”
In 1981, a second Rosita’s opened at 2023 West Guadalupe Road in Mesa. In 1987, Rosita’s Tempe restaurant was relocated west to 960 West University Drive. After she retired and turned the restaurant over to her family, Rosa continued as a consultant.
The City of Tempe Issued a declaration naming September 17, 2002, “Rosa Keeme Day in Tempe.”
She died at the age of 97 on September 6, 2008.
The 58-year tradition continues.
Rosa had been cited for her work and support of the Boys and Girls Club, Red Cross, Tempe Cares, the Escalante Senior Center, and St. Margaret’s Catholic parish. For decades, the Keemes engaged mariachi bands for Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day celebrations at the senior center in Tempe, where Rosa regularly took part in activities well into her 90s, said Elaine Tabor, former senior programs director. Food was always donated and catered by Rosita’s. Rosa Keeme and her family have resided in the Victory Acres neighborhood of northeast Tempe since the 1950s.
“She set an example of putting on her ‘easy spirit shoes’ and getting out on the dance floor,” said Pam O’Hara, a former senior service leader at the center. ” She would lead the way, encouraging everyone else to dance. For all her 90-plus years, she could keep up with the younger members and give them a run for their money.”
There were 44 testimonials posted with her obituary in 2008. John Mayer told about a hot summer day in the 1960s when he and his brother wandered into Rosita’s to escape the heat and share a Coke with just a dollar in their pockets. They asked Rosa’s son whether the buck could fetch “us a cold drink and a basket of chips.” A few minutes later, Rosa came out of the kitchen with a warm smile, two Cokes, a basket of chips, and four of the best tacos in the universe. We were shocked.” They thought Rosa’s son had misunderstood. “She simply insisted that young boys should have lunch and that we should hang onto our money.”
Susan Bickel worked in the kitchen in the early 1970s. About Rosa, she said, “I was a marvel to work next to her and watch her work. She amazed me when she would pick up those hot plates without using a hot pad! Her hands were fireproof.”
Sylvia Cervantes worked at the restaurant for 20 years. “Rosita was a very kind and generous person, an example of her kindness and generosity was that if anyone ever came to the back door hungry and without any money, she fed them,” Sylvia said. “I admired her struggles and perseverance to build the legacy she has left behind.”
David DeLage said he was 12 when he ate for the first time at the restaurant. “I could never have too much. I grew up on her chimichangas, enchiladas, and the always-popular green chili burritos. And when I grew to legal age, the golden margaritas were the best.” He said his family’s loyalty to the restaurant would long continue. Rose Keeme “will always be an Arizona original and the founder of several generations of Momma Rosita’s Mexican food fans.”
Grandson Charles Edward Keeme heads and manages the restaurants today. He was a graduate of Tempe Leadership Class 22 in 2007.
Charles has amplified Rosita’s community involvement by donating his time and skills by preparing Thanksgiving turkey dinners for the Ladmo Branch of the Boys and Girls Club at both the Dennis Cahill Intergenerational Community Center and the Escalante Community Center. That involved as many as 60 turkeys that were roasted and prepared with the sides for at least the past 12 years. Charles Keeme noted that meals served at the community centers for New Year celebrations have featured many hams with all the sides “just like my Nana would make.” Rosa’s son Narcizo, who was born in Mexico in 1933, passed away in January 2021.
From 1991 to 2014, Rosita’s donated the luncheon meals for the hundreds of volunteers taking part in the annual Tempe Cares community improvement projects sponsored by Tempe Leadership.
Rosita’s Restaurants today are serving the fifth generation of customers and their fourth generation of family employees.
— Lawn Griffiths