The Summer Food Drive 2011 started at 02:00 A.M. with a 351 mile jaunt to the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. It is a geologic wonder and also known as the “Sky City” by the native Hopi people. It is a place I’d barely heard of but the idea of the Ancients, their philosophy and soulfulness, still lingering around their long abandoned dwellings was compelling. I was also drawn to the idea of experiencing native foods in the most native of environments.
The Yaaka Cafe (Yaaka means corn) promised to serve traditional fare in a traditional setting. What better way to kick off an American food trip than with Native American foods? If my luck held at all the dishes would be “authentic” and not the doughy overly fried versions found at weekend events.
After 6 hours of driving, I was ready for a meal but the beauty of the high desert vista leading to the Acoma Pueblo and the elegant soulful design of the Sky City Cultural Center and the Haaku Museum fueled curiousity at the expense of hunger. Martha Watchempo Fasel, a very talented fine arts painter was featured.
The visual beauty continued as I finally made my way to the beautifulYaaka Cafe, which takes full advantage of the natural and historic views offered by its surroundings and Sky City. If there wasn’t a permit-only, photo ban, there’d be a few more photos. I did seek permission to take a few snaps of my traditional meal with “bread.” Some of the Menu can be seen by following the link.
In the same way that round ham-like back bacon shows up when “Bacon” is ordered in Canada, fry bread is “Bread” on the Native menu. The bread was not a completely different animal but well executed and more delicate than the Big Top Faire. It was also a good counterpoint to my local dish: Nanna’s Sheepherder Wrap.
From the picture you probably expect another burrito, as I did. Instead, what arrived at my table to the accompaniement of native chanting on the Muzak system (It grew on me and I may seek it out on I-Tunes), was a super pleasant surprise for the taste buds and the ever curious brain.
The “Nana’s Sheepherder” had none of the acidy spice of the Mexican meal. It was earthier with more of a Umami taste that I have rarely experience. At first happiness was fueled by surprise, then by the dish as I acquired a taste for the hard to describe flavor. Think of it as a crispy mutton hash with an umami flavor (from the pan fried potatoes and slow cooked roast beef) supported by the traditionally flavored, red chili paste and you won’t be far off.
Truth be told, I entered the Yaaka Cafe a bit worried after 350 miles. It is homey but touristy, a kind of cross between Southwesterny home style and a tourist attraction food court. The hot dogs and burgers are front and center but you can find the Traditional Menu on the take-out paper menus.
All in all, it was an auspicious start in a fairly remote, long-shot restaurant that should hold me until Cafe Pasquals in Santa Fe (that turned out to be another story). I thank the ancestors for sharing their cuisine and approach the rest of my travels with an open mind and heart.
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