NAICCO Cuisine dishes up Native American street food worthy of thanks
It’s widely believed that on the first Thanksgiving in 1621 a feast was shared between Native Americans and struggling English settlers to give thanks for a successful harvest.Listing things to be thankful for as Thanksgiving 2020 approaches might be harder.
But one entry on my list would be recently speaking with Ty Smith — the infectiously upbeat project director of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO) — and then eating the easy-to-love fare cooked by NAICCO Cuisine, the food trailer Smith helps oversee.
“We’re the first of our kind — maybe in the country,” Smith said over the phone after describing what NAICCO Cuisine serves as “Native American street food.” Expounding on this uncommon dining category, Smith said that NAICCO Cuisine dishes up a blend of traditional and contemporary Native American flavors that are practical to prepare from a food trailer.
Doughnut-like fry bread, a longtime staple of Native American diets, forms the cornerstone of the menu. But it’s not just any fry bread.
“My wife’s fry bread is just the best. It melts in your mouth,” Smith said. He characterized NAICCO Cuisine’s fry bread as a lighter, Northwestern-style — Smith and his wife Masami came to Ohio 25 years ago from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon — diligently perfected by Masami, who is executive director of NAICCO by day.
I can attest that the Smiths make a great case for offering the best-ever fry bread. The hefty, golden-brown, flavorful loaves featured at NAICCO Cuisine have puffy-yet-crunchy exteriors that lead to supple, super-comforting interiors. In simplest form, they’re available plain ($2) or appealingly sweetened with honey and powdered sugar ($2).
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Another popular item is the highly recommended NDN Taco($10). Called a “Navajo taco” elsewhere and resembling an enormous chalupa or gordita, it’s a crisp-yet-pliable fry bread “boat” cradling a crowd-pleasing load of seasoned ground beef (in the zesty manner of “taco meat”) enhanced with beans (kidney, pinto and black). Time-tested garnishes such as shredded lettuce, cheese, onions, tomatoes, sour cream and hot sauce are on hand to complete an irresistible combination.
Want more meat and garnishes but less carbs? The huge NDN Taco Bowl ($10) — those taco components minus the fry bread — is a good choice if you’ve already ordered several items made with the must-have fry bread.
If you order only one thing made with fry bread, I suggest you try the standout NAICCO Pocket ($8). It’s essentially a large empanada that’s crisp-yet-pillowy and filled with a deeply savory amalgam fashioned with seasoned ground beef, tomato paste, molten cheese and corn.
Cheeseburger fans will fare well with the Buffalo Burger ($10, served with a side of warm corn). It tasted like a hamburger with all the trimmings, but buffalo meat is much leaner and far more healthful than beef. My one suggestion: How about offering a buffalo burger in a fry bread “bun”?
There’s no fry bread in the NDN Sundae ($7), either. But what’s there — madeleine-like strips adorned with berries, a not-too-sweet berry compote and whipped cream — is easy to applaud.
Actually, everything about NAICCO Cuisine is easy to applaud. This includes allocating proceeds to train NAICCO members in the food business and to purchase land for the future establishment of a bigger and better NAICCO.
NAICCO Cuisine has a tentative Black Friday gig at Polaris and a possible upcoming guest spot in the mall’s food court (check NAICCO’s Facebook page for updates). Due to the recent spike in coronavirus cases and inclement weather, though, the business might soon go on hiatus until spring.
Schedule aside, I hope this already in-demand operation that officially premiered on Indigenous Peoples’ Day (formerly Columbus Day) will be around a long time. That would be something for which to give thanks.
67 E. Innis Ave., South Side