WASHINGTON — Step into the Mitsitam Cafe at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and you’ll quickly realize you’re not in for typical museum fare. Absent are cardboard pizza and cold fries. In their place are grilled bison strip loin with red currant sauce and pork shank marinated with hibiscus and chocolate. This extensive showcase of Native American cuisine is executed admirably.
The cafe features a daunting array of hearty, wholesome dishes that make use of ingredients and cooking techniques popular with the indigenous peoples of North and South America. Executive chef Richard Hetzler sees this as one big edible living exhibit, in which visitors literally get a taste of the cultures represented elsewhere in the museum. Both the menu and the cafeteria-style serving area are divided into five regions: Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Mesoamerica, and the Great Plains. The focal point is in the Northwest Coast section, where two richly colored sides of salmon face off, each lashed to a charred plank of cedar suspended over a wood fire. The fish is not just for show. It appears in dishes like horseradish-crusted salmon with huckleberry chutney.