The U.S. government’s forced relocation of Native American communities in the 1800s not only separated countless families from their ancestral homelands, but severed ancient food cultures from their traditional food sources. The government threw flour, sugar, and lard at the hunger of the displaced, with which a staple of modern Native American cuisine was born. The deep-fried, doughy pillows called frybread are viewed today by some as a relic of oppression, but many others as a symbol of resilience.
In a twist of historic irony, frybread now anchors the menu at Off the Rez, one of Washington State’s few Native American–owned restaurants. If that’s not enough to chew on, it’s in a museum celebrating the region’s natural and cultural history.
Off the Rez co-owner Mark McConnell grew up eating frybread made by his mother, a member of the Blackfeet Nation. When he and his partner, Cecilia Rikard, launched a Seattle-area food truck—also called Off the Rez—in 2011, they sold showy renditions of reservation classics. Powwow burgers (beef, bacon, cumin crema, and pickled red onions on frybread), Indian tacos (frybread with pulled pork or chili), and sweet frybreads with an array of sweet toppings (Nutella is a crowd favorite) earned them somewhat of a cult following over the years. After the Burke Museum tapped the couple to open a brick and mortar cafe within their newly renovated building, the offerings took on a broader scope.
In a sleek, brightly lit 30-seat cafe, diners can choose from all the food-truck classics locally known and loved as well as an expanded menu of pre-colonial dishes. Hyper-local, traditional ingredients are on display in customizable wild rice bowls, braised bison tacos on frybread, and a sweet potato salad with peppers, corn, and dijon dressing. Their 12-hour pulled pork makes a case for post-colonial foods, while a chipotle coleslaw expands the “Native” radius.
Whatever you get, be sure to grab a bite before you go into the museum. The frybread dishes at Off the Rez may be the only exhibit here you can eat.