Courtesy of Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery
Courtesy of Kai Restaurant
Kai, a highly acclaimed Native American restaurant in the Phoenix area, serves contemporary dishes influenced by Arizona’s indigenous Pima and Maricopa tribes.
A handful of contemporary restaurants led by Indigenous chefs highlight the diversity of Native American foods and cultures across the country.
In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, many children in the United States learn stories about that first 17th-century feast—the turkey, squash, and venison shared by the English colonists and the Indigenous people who originally occupied the land. However, mainstream understanding of Native American cuisine hasn’t extended much further than that until recent years, as Indigenous chefs across the country have started to increasingly spotlight Native foods and recipes.
The following selection of Native American restaurants are standouts worth visiting, particularly in November, which marks Native American Heritage Month in the United States.
At Kai, the only restaurant in Arizona to earn both AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star ratings, chef Ryan Swanson creates an upscale menu using ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community, as well as influences from the Pima and Maricopa tribes. The name of this fine-dining establishment (which is the marquee restaurant at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass) means “seed” in the Pima language. For one special entrée, servers burn sage and lavender in a bouquet above a dish of goose and rabbit. Another features grilled buffalo tenderloin served with cholla cactus buds and saguaro-blossom syrup, a sweet and savory elixir made from a Sonoran desert cactus. Kai currently offers indoor dining, in compliance with Arizona’s COVID-19 guidelines.
This fast-casual spot in Denver updates traditional recipes from co-owner Ben Jacobs’s grandmother, a tribal member of the Osage Nation. The menu at Tocabe features “Posu Bowls” served with wild rice; a choice of bison, beef, chicken, or beans and vegetables; and a variety of Native ingredients and toppings such as Osage hominy (made from dried maize), sweet corn, and a signature maple vinaigrette. The “Tocabe Favorite” includes bison ribs cured for 24 hours before they’re glazed with a berry barbecue sauce and served with a side of fry bread—a flat, fried dough that’s a staple of Native American cuisine.
“Our goal is to create an understanding of what Native food is,” says Jacobs, who opened the eatery in 2008 with his former Denver University classmate Matt Chandra. Tocabe claims the title of Denver’s only “American Indian owned and operated” restaurant, and now there are two locations: one in North Denver and the other in Greenwood Village. Tocabe currently offers to-go food and some indoor dining, with reduced hours due to COVID-19.
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Chef Mark Daniel Mason, who is half Navajo and half Hidatsa, mixes Southwestern and Navajo foodways to come up with crowd-pleasing dishes at Black Sheep Cafe, which doubles as a local gallery for Native American artists in the city of Provo (about 43 miles south of Salt Lake City). Black Sheep’s rotating menu includes dishes such as grilled pork chop with roasted poblano chiles wrapped in traditional nanniskadi (Navajo bread) or “Navajo Tacos” topped with green chiles. Mason says there are no rules in his cooking, but he does abide by one principle: to always use the “three sisters” of Native food—corn, beans, and squash.
Seasonal food is served cafeteria-style at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, a casual dining spot inside the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in the U.S. capital. Mitsitam, which means “let’s eat” in the Piscataway and Delaware languages, is led by executive chefs Richard Hetzler and Freddie Bitsoie. Keep an eye on them: Bitsoie was named as “a rising star in the constellation of young chefs” by Native Peoples magazine in 2011.
Diners will get a tour of cuisines from across the Western Hemisphere, including North America’s Northern Woodlands and Northwest Coast, plus South America and Mesoamerica (which extends to Mexico and Central America). But they can also deep dive into region-specific dishes, such as a pulled buffalo sandwich with chayote squash slaw that takes its cues from the people of the Great Plains. Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe is temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Check its website for more information.
Berkeley, California, may be the Bay Area’s hippie seat but the city itself is Ohlone territory. The original inhabitants of the Bay Area were once numerous and lived entirely off and in concert with the land. There are about 5,000 existing tribe members—including Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, partners and founders of Café Ohlone, who want to revive those ancient ways. Pre-COVID, the duo offered, in a small courtyard, seasonal menus based on ancestral recipes and precontact times (there’s no gluten, dairy, pork, legumes, or alcohol to be found) and sourced entirely from the Bay Area.
While Café Ohlone is closed due to COVID-19—and as they transition to a permanent space—they’re offering monthly Sunday Supper boxes for two that go far beyond most dinner sets out there. Imagine a box packed with stinging nettle tea, local mussels, chanterelles, quail eggs, and sweets like brownies made with hazelnut flour and local sea salt. The pair also includes a handmade beeswax candle, a curated playlist, and a Vimeo link to a video with descriptions of the menu and Ohlone community members sharing details about their culture.
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Formerly known as Pueblo Harvest, this restaurant in Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is undergoing a transformation that will add a teaching kitchen, business incubator, and hospitality training programs—all aimed at expanding awareness of Indigenous cuisine. Come spring 2021, travelers should be able to dine on buffalo short ribs and white corn and sumac porridge at the restaurant run by chef Ray Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo, Odawa), as well as join in cooking classes and wine-pairing dinners. Naranjo says he wants to share food that “mirrors the present-day food culture, but is also inclusive of the ingredients from the Ancestral Puebloans and the ingredients that would have been available via trade routes from tribes from the south.” Until Indian Pueblo Kitchen reopens, people can join Naranjo’s Pante Project, a monthly dinner series where diners pick up an ingredient box, then join an online cooking class that also reveals the cultural significance of ingredients.
Portland’s first (and only) Native-owned coffeehouse, Bison serves beans from Native roasters across the United States. The coffeehouse is a longtime dream for Loretta Guzman, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes of Fort Hall, Idaho, who visualized the idea for a community space representing her ancestry while battling stage four cancer. The café’s namesake icon, a massive bison, occupies one wall of the shop, a “symbol of resilience” to the Shoshone-Bannock tribe—and to Guzman, who made a full recovery. In addition to serving expertly prepared lattes and her signature biscuits, Guzman uses her space—filled with Native American art—to raise awareness (and funds) for dozens of causes, including wild bison preservation and the water crisis at Warm Springs Reservation.
Mark McConnell grew up eating the crispy, honey-laced fry bread prepared by his mother, a member of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana. McConnell took those childhood memories and channeled them into Off the Rez, a food truck that launched more than a decade ago and has since settled into a brick-and-mortar Native American restaurant at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Run by McConnell and his partner, Cecilia Rikard, the restaurant offers fry bread, yes (customizable with either sweet or savory toppings, from jam to chicken chili), but also Native-inspired food like wild rice with braised bison or seasonal vegetables.
Occupying a full floor of the Downstream Casino, owned by the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma, is one of middle America’s finest steakhouses. Renovated in 2019, the Red Oak Steakhouse features a well-lit cabinet in which dry-aged beef hangs—diners can choose their cut, which is then placed on a cherry-wood-fired grill and cooked to their preference. Even better, all the hormone-free beef—and many of the ingredients served at the restaurant—were raised on-site, part of the Quapaw Nation’s commitment to centuries-old Native connections with the land. (In recent years, they’ve added bison management, beehives, and a coffee-roasting facility to their operations.) Round out a meal with the Craft House Kolsch, made at the on-site brewery, and a stroll to the five greenhouses nearby, where herbs and other produce are grown.
While it’s not exactly a restaurant, the Sioux Chef—an Indigenous catering company in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area—deserves an honorable mention for its modern and traditional take on Dakota and Ojibwe dishes. Founded by Sean Sherman, the Native chef behind the now-shuttered Tatanka Trunk (a Minneapolis food truck serving what the chef dubbed “Indigenous tacos” inspired by precolonization fare), the catering company hosts occasional dinners and educational events everywhere from New York City to Milan. Even if you can’t attend, you can still glean knowledge of Native American cuisine from Sherman’s published collection of recipes, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), which won the James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018.
This article originally ran online in November 2015; it was updated February 19, 2021, to include current information.
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