You can go native at Mitsitam, the Smithsonian's cafe




WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Soon after we arrived here on the morning Megabus, I told my family, "Mitsitam!"

They had no idea what I was saying.

But in what once was the local language of the Piscataway and Delaware tribes, mitsitam means, "Let's eat."

And that's what I was looking forward to doing at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Mitsitam is the name of the cafe at the museum, which opened in 2004 on the National Mall, "committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western hemisphere, past, present and future."

That the cafe has itself become a destination makes sense when you walk in and see this is so not typical museum food.

We were quickly and pleasantly overwhelmed by the delicious-looking and -sounding choices from an arc of five regional food stations. There was planked salmon and geoduck clam chowder from the Northwest Coast, buffalo burgers and fry bread from the Great Plains, maple-brined turkey and heirloom bean-and-roasted-corn succotash from the Northern Woodlands, and corn tapopos and tacos from Mesoamerica, present-day Central America. The South American station presented a really wild array of dishes, including a salad of baby octopus, green papaya and purple corn with ocopa sauce (whatever that is) and a San Chochode Gallina soup that included chicken, bittersweet chocolate, bacon dust and chodo (whatever that is).

Scattered about are even more exotic and tempting delectables, from various agua frescas (flavored drinks) to mesquite pinon cookies.

While these mostly aren't foods eaten in teepees and cliff-dwellings and the like, Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe uses ingredients and cooking techniques to reflect native flavors and lifeways in traditional and contemporary foods.

So you can get a full array of soft drinks, beer and wine, too. You can even get chicken tenders with fries if you must. But our 3 1/2-year-old got the children's meal of fry bread grilled cheese with a drink and an apple ($7.50). My wife went South American and got a Chicken Tamale with Spicy Peanut Sauce ($11.95). I wanted to try so many side dishes and so I got a "Plate Full of Colors" ($12.50) -- four sides from any of the stations -- that was filled with Wild Rice and Watercress Salad; Roasted Sunchoke Salad with Ginger Vinaigrette; Roasted Calabasa, Grilled Chayote Squash Salad with White Chocolate Vinaigrette; and Roasted Chicory.

I didn't feel hungry enough to do justice to the "value meal" -- the $26.95-for-two "Five Region Sampler Platter" with tastes from all five including grilled bison and cedar-planked salmon cooked over a fire pit in the Northwest Coast station.

Not cheap, but this is D.C., and this isn't food you can get in this scope and scale at any other one place that I know of. Plus, a meal here comes with a built-in lesson.

Exhibits outside the entrance, where especially at high tourist times there are long lines, bring home one of the cafe's main messages about how so many of the world's most important foods -- corn, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes -- have their roots in the Americas and in their indigenous cultures.

"People don't understand where food comes from," Mitsitam's executive chef Richard Hetzler told me the next day, sitting at one of the long tables in the airy, Southwesterny dining space overlooking the Mall that seats 362 people and frequently is full. He's proud that this place he helped start feeds up to 3,000 people a day and does some $5.5 million in business each year (proceeds of which support the Smithsonian) and proud that it got a good review in The Washington Post and is Zagat rated. "We're compared to a local restaurant," says the chef.

Mitsitam is the go-to place in that part of town for locals such as Beltsville, Md., resident and writer of Maya's Kitchen blog (mayaskitchenonline.blogspot.com) Maya Balasubramaniam, who loves to bring out-of-towners here. "The National Mall is, sadly, a bit of a food wasteland otherwise," she notes. "I really appreciate the chef's effort to use uniquely American ingredients in creative ways, and to include seasonal variation as well."

The oohs and ahhs are near constant and spontaneous from first-time cafe visitors.

"I thought I knew what I wanted and then I started looking," one woman almost groans to the server at the South American area.

"Absolutely fascinating," remarks another.

While you see a lot of fry bread heading out on trays, plenty of people buy the more exotic stuff, too. "Frog legs have done really well here," says Chef Hetzler. "I think people become very adventurous."

Coming from Australia, journalism professor Louise Ravelli wanted to try the Puree of Carrot and Candied Chestnuts, since chestnuts aren't something she'd see a lot of at home. She was enjoying it with the wild rice salad when she leaned over to compliment the chef: "The food is delicious and very innovative."

He points out that while most of the fare is served cafeteria style, some items are prepared to order, such as the House Ground Buffalo and Duck Burger with Roasted Pepper Dijonnaise, Smoked Tomatoes and Aged Cheddar Cheese, served with Chili-spiced Fries for $15.95.

"It's not museum food anymore," says the man who changes the seasonal menu four times a year, and frequently works in special menus and programming. A must on this year's spring menu: Fern leaf shoots called fiddleheads. (Fiddlehead Fern Salad is one of the recipes in the book.)

The cafe sources many of its ingredients, from salmon to saguaro cactus fruit syrup and seeds, from native businesses. But the place can't sell dry, hard corn "bread" that might be historically accurate. So it offers fluffy corn bread, in yellow and blue. But the place continues to try to be as "native" as it can be, from recipes to staffing.

On this day, he's just finished meeting with representatives from an Arizona trade school who are working with him to do a week of Navaho foods capped by an "Iron Chef" type competition.

He says, "We're starting to get a lot of tribal feedback." The cafe looks to become even more widely known with the success of "The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook," which Mr. Hetzler and the Smithsonian spent three years creating. The hardback, published this past fall by Fulcrum, is prominently displayed in the cafe and available for purchase there for $22.95. But you won't find Chef Hetzler there over the next few days: Today through this weekend, he's at the Paris Cookbook Fair to schmooze and compete for more honors in Gourmand Magazine's World Cookbook Awards. (The magazine already named "Mitsitam" its USA winner for "Best Local Cuisine Book.")



Meanwhile, the cookbook has been featured all over the place, from Atlantic Monthly to the Food Network.

He's enjoying it. "I don't consider myself a superstar chef. I've been very lucky," says Mr. Hetzler, who, as his name suggests, is not an American Indian. His roots are German; as his book bio explains, he grew up in Baltimore and graduated from the Baltimore International Culinary Academy before joining Restaurant Associates, the company that runs food services for all the Smithsonian museums. While most of the other cafes are fairly standard and no more exotic than McDonald's, Chef Hetzler says he and his company are in talks about cooking up something special for the National Museum of African American History and Culture that is to break ground on the Mall next year and be completed in 2015.

Who knows: Perhaps that will lead to another great place to eat in Washington ... and another great cookbook.

The Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe is open daily, except for Christmas, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the full menu is available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The museum's website: AmericanIndian.si.edu.


Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930. First Published March 3, 2011 5:00 AM




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