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Friday, November 16, 2007

Thing 83: Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe

When you think cafeteria, you're probably thinking...what? Soggy egg salad sandwiches. Meatloaf in chafing dishes. Over salted frozen mixed vegetables. Jello cups. Right?

The Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, the cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian, will completely dispel those negative ideas, proving that food you served on a tray need not be stale or of questionable nutritional value, but can actually be delicious, satisfying, healthy and adventurous cooking.

Since the Museum of the American Indian is a Smithsonian, admission is free and you can pop right back to the cafeteria. The actual museum is going to merit a really thorough post at some point in the future, with me spending a lot of time there and really thinking about the whole enterprise. That day was not yesterday. Yesterday I just wanted my lunch.

Mitsitam Salmon for lunch
As one might expect from a museum about native cultures, the foods at the cafeteria are all native to the U.S. and the cooking techniques mimic those of the native tribes. The stations are divided by geography, so there is one for the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, etc. Each station serves a main dish, several sides, and usually a soup and a dessert. The wide geographic diversity means plenty to choose from -- buffalo burgers or carnitas tacos, pumpkin soup or seafood stew, salmon, elk, turkey, oysters, clams...Limiting oneself to foods native to this continent is hardly limiting at all.

I ended up eating from the Pacific Northwest, where the lure of cedar planked salmon cooked over an open flame (seriously, you could see the open flame) was too much for me resist. Cooked until moist and rich, it was then brushed with a sweet blueberry sauce, a nice contrast to the rich, dense fish. Although you can choose your side dishes from any station to create a trans-continental lunch, I stayed with the Northwest, getting corn pone with wild mushrooms and wild rice salad with dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds and watercress. The corn pone was like extra smooth grits, and was so rich with mushrooms and (I'm guessing) butter it was all I could do keep from eating all of it at once. The wild rice salad was also good -- clean and light, with a nice sweetness from the cranberries.

My lunchtime companion went further East, to the Rocky Mountains, and had roasted elk which was really good. I'd never had elk -- it was rich and gamy had a great crust on the outside and tender chewiness on the inside. He also got grilled corn on the cob and green and yellow beans.

There's a variety of desserts available too, little pumpkin pies or brownies or key lime tarts, but the best is the Indian pudding -- that slow cooked cornmeal mush, sweetened with molasses or maple syrup. It is the very perfect dessert for a cold fall day, warm and sweet and satisfying.

Mitsitam Native Foods CafeThe cafeteria itself is a beautiful space -- no plastic picnic tables and fluorescent lighting here. The lines all bend and curve, just like the architecture of the whole building, and the walls are painted a warm red color. Large windows look out onto the Mall and the Capitol, with tables and benches running along the windows and into a round open space with long wooden tables. The ambiance is a bit...hectic, what with the inevitable hordes of elementary school children on field trips and fanny-packed tourists. And the food isn't cheap -- my plate set me back $16, which seems pricey for a meal eaten on a yellow plastic tray, even if it is much better than the average cafeteria.

This remains a great and unexpected lunch spot, replete with interesting and delicious foods, and I urge you stop by and try it. Be warned though, you might be overwhelmed with the desire to just stay at the museum after lunch -- or maybe pop in next door for a cosmic show.