Staff photos by Rowena Plett
Delora Alvarez peers out from behind a large ceramic frog that sits on a counter at Al’s Café in Lost Springs. She has been operating the business since 1970.
A Marion family patronizes Al’s Café in Lost Springs. The couple eat there at least once a month.
Reluctant restaurateur now an institution
Not much is left of the former oil boom town of Lost Springs in northeastern Marion County.
But one feature that has endured for 48 years is Al’s Café, a Mexican restaurant that began in 1970 and is still owned and operated by the same family. It draws from throughout the county and surrounding areas.
The menu includes a variety of authentic Mexican food. Chips and dip served with owner Delora Alvarez’s own salsa recipe are a favorite starter.
Al’s Special, a flat tortilla spread with refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and sausage or hamburger, is popular with customers.
Mexican décor adorns the spacious dining room, along with University of Kansas sports posters and memorabilia.
The Jayhawk features are provided by Alvarez’s daughter, Audrey, who works with her and is a Jayhawk fan. But that doesn’t stop K-State fans from stopping there to eat on the way to games in Manhattan.
The business began when one day Manuel Alvarez came home to his wife, Delora, and said, “Well, are you ready to go to work?”
““Go to work?” Delora replied. “I’m not going to work.”
“Well, I just bought a café,” he said.
“What are you going to do with it?” Delora asked.
“We’re going to run it,” he said.
“Are you serious?” she exclaimed.
“Yes,” he said.
“Oh, my gosh,” she replied. “I don’t know how to run a café. I don’t know how to do anything.”
“You can cook,” he said.
“Yes, but not for everybody,” she replied.
They had six small children, but she rose to the challenge, and that was the beginning of a new venture as business owners.
The café was a little place on Berry St. that had been a Diamond Springs country schoolhouse.
Alvarez got some help from the previous owner, who prepared American food, while Delora made Mexican food.
The children grew along with her.
“They grew up in here with me,” she said.
Tragedy struck in 1975, when Manuel was killed while working on the railroad. Delora closed the business.
In 1981, she decided to reopen the café. Customers returned, and new people started coming.
In 1998, as the little building was getting too busy and crowded, she decided to construct a new metal building.
“I didn’t realize how small the other building was until I moved in here,” she said, “but everything is the same except for the counter.”
Business remains steady. Most of her help are relatives, including grandchildren and nephews. She has some health issues but plans to continue operating the café as long as possible.
“It feels like family every time we visit,” a frequent customer said.
Another from outside the area decided the food must be great because a train had stopped at the east edge of town and the engineer had walked to the café for a meal.
Several years ago, a new customer discovered that Al’s Café took cash only. She had no cash, so she drove six miles to the nearest automatic teller machine, retrieved cash, and returned.
“The food was great, but if you go to eat at Al’s Café, remember to bring cash,” she said.
Since then, Alvarez has accepted credit cards. Al’s Café is a mile west of US-56/77 on 340th Rd. It is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays.