In the next couple weeks, kids all across the U.S. will come home with stories about the first Thanksgiving—the turkey and corn pudding prepared by the colonists and the venison the Native Americans brought to the table. Unfortunately, for most Americans, that’s as far as our knowledge of Native American foods goes. Even restaurateurs once hesitated to call it by name. “It was always ‘Southwest,’” says Chef Nephi Craig, president of the Native American Culinary Association. But that attitude is changing. As interest in seasonal and local flavors grows, more and more Americans are starting to discover how healthy and delicious Native foods can be. Here are a few Native American restaurants across the country to try this fall.
1. Kai at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa
Chef Ryan Swanson uses ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community and influences from the Pima and Maricopa tribes to create an upscale menu at Kai, Arizona’s only restaurant to earn both AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star ratings. For one special, servers burn sage and lavender in a bouquet above a dish of goose and rabbit. In another, grilled buffalo tenderloin is served with cholla cactus buds and saguaro blossom syrup, a sweet and savory elixir made from another cactus native to the Sonoran desert.
2. Summit Restaurant at Sunrise Park Resort
At the “chef’s table” inside the kitchen at Summit Restaurant, Chef Nephi Craig serves eight to twelve courses based on his Apache and Navajo heritage, each menu tailored to diners’ preferences—and, if they are Native, where they come from. “Our lens is that food is a sacred part of our existence,” he says. “Many of our wild Apache foods are in our songs and ceremonies, in our creation story.”
3. Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery
Denver and Greenwood Village, Colorado
This fast casual mini-chain serves dishes like bison ribs with blueberry barbecue sauce that are based on recipes from co-owner Ben Jacobs’ Osage grandma. “Our goal is create an understanding of what Native food is,” says Jacobs, who hopes to open more Tocabe locations in 2016. So far they’ve been successful: Guy Fieri proclaimed the restaurant’s off-the-hook-ness on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” in 2011.
4. The Pequot Café at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center
The Wampanoag people attended the original Thanksgiving feast, but Mashpee Wampanoag actually celebrate many Thanksgivings throughout the year. “We thank the winter for cleansing the land, the spring for bringing us herring runs,” says Chef Sherry Pocknett of the Pequot Café, which serves modernized versions of traditional foods from the Eastern Woodlands. Diners can try Pocknett’s for snapping turtle soup (yes, with real turtle), venison stew, and corn cakes with cranberry chutney in a restaurant with views of an ancient cedar forest.
5. Tatanka Truck
“Indigenous tacos” of bison, turkey, walleye, or squash on grilled corn and bean bread are the specialty at this food truck, which also offers snacks like energy bars made from dried bison and fruit. “We’re shining a light on these incredibly delicious flavor profiles that have not gotten the attention they deserve,” says Sean Sherman, who helped develop the menu. Sherman also runs The Sioux Chef, a catering company that is getting lots of buzz for its modern and traditional Dakota and Ojibwe dishes.
6. Black Sheep Cafe
Chef Mark Daniel Mason, who is half Navajo and half Hidatsa, mixes Southwestern and Navajo influences to come up with crowd-pleasing dishes like braised hog jowl tacos with maple-bay leaf bbq sauce, green chile fries, and cactus pear lemonade. Mason says there are no rules in his cooking, but he does abide by one principle: “I make sure we always use the ‘three sisters’ of Native food—corn, beans and squash.”
7. Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
A popular cafeteria-style eatery on the National Mall, Mitsitam ("let's eat" in the Piscataway and Delaware languages) features Native flavors from all across the Western Hemisphere. Executive Chef Jerome Grant offers contemporary twists on dishes from the Northern Woodlands, Great Plains, Northwest Coast, and even Mesoamerica and South America. A new demo kitchen slated for 2016 will let everyone get a glimpse of how Native American recipes are prepared.
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