It’s no surprise that Arizona’s capital is a hot spot for Native American cuisine. The city is home to 22 recognized Native American tribes — more than any other state. Talented chefs are returning to local, old-fashioned ingredients (think tepary beans, Saguaro cactus seeds, sumac and chollo buds) and adding creative twists to the traditional dishes of indigenous peoples, spurring a hot, new culinary trend.
We set out to explore the area’s unique Native American restaurants, and learned that they are as diverse and rich as the varied Southwest cultures they represent. Here are three of our favorites.
The unassuming, no-frills Fry Bread House (4140 North 7th Ave., 602-351-2345) is a hole-in-the-wall joint run by a local family from the Tohono O’odham Nation. It’s one of only five restaurants nationwide to win the 2012 James Beard American Classics award, and the only Native American restaurant ever to receive it. Lines typically extend out the door, with customers waiting to place orders at the stand-up counter, and snag a seat in the tiny restaurant. Frybread, we learned, can be a bit controversial. Made from white flour, baking powder, salt, and Crisco, it was created out of necessity when Native Americans were sent to reservations and had to use commodities (some say unhealthy ones) supplied by the government. We set politics aside and shared the fiery green chili beef, taco-style, wrapped in white paper. The bread was plate-size, fluffy and warm, greasy (in a good way), and stuffed with tender, well-seasoned meat. Open-faced frybreads topped with heaps of pork and chorizo and chocolate and butter frybread were also popular dishes coming out of the small kitchen. Most run between $5-$7.
For a totally different, upscale experience, we headed to nearby, five-star, five-diamond KAI (5594 West Wild Horse Pass Blvd., Chandler, 602-385-5726, www.wildhorsepass.com/kairestaurant.html), where chef Joshua Johnson works his magic. Don’t expect strictly traditional dishes; instead emphasis is on modern and often complex uptakes based in traditional Pima and Maricopa tribe cuisine, using ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community. The waitstaff sets the tone with passionate service, offering menus divided into courses: The Birth, The Beginning, The Journey, and The Afterlife. We tried the heirloom tomato gazpacho ($14) and were delightfully surprised when pork belly nuggets and chilis were added to the soup tableside, releasing a lovely smokiness and a little kick. The suckling pig torta ($27) appetizer came with Epazote mole and a saguaro seed popover. The Spanish sea bass was served with olive tapenade and I’itoi onion gnocchi. Our favorite dish, the signature grilled tenderloin of tribal buffalo ($47), was set on a bed of smoked corn puree, cholla buds, and Merquez sausage and scarlet runner bean chili, then drizzled with mellow and slightly sweet saguaro blossom syrup. It was unlike any meal we’d ever had.
We got both a culture lesson and a fine meal at Desert Rain Cafe (Tohona Plaza, Main Street, Sells, 520-383-4918, www.desertraincafe.com), a health-focused restaurant owned and operated by the Tohono O’odham tribe. Each dish on the small breakfast and lunch menus contained at least one traditional product and often was prepared in traditional tribal ways. The house-made granola ($4.95) had mesquite (ground bean pods that added a graham cracker-like flavor), saguaro seeds, and agave nectar (a traditional and healthier alternative to sugar). Earthy-flavored tepary beans have been grown and used by the Tohono O’odham for generations. Here, they use them in the hearty tepary bean and short rib stew ($5.95) and their thick and creamy hummus. We also enjoyed the grilled chicken sandwich ($8.95), served on a fresh-baked roll with spicy-sweet prickly pear and chili sauce, and a fire-roasted ear of corn as a side dish. We couldn’t resist popping into the Desert Rain Gallery shop next to the cafe, where we bought Tohono O’odham Trading Co. products: tepary beans, saguaro syrup, and cholla buds.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.