Frybread Riot Grrrrl Tocabe: An American Indian EateryTweet
By: Twyla Baker-Demaray
Im a frybread snob. I can confess to it and own it. Im not much of a food critic, as my dining style is considerably less high-brow than the typical food critic; but I do believe that I know good frybread. I learned how to make it when was nine years old and doing a stint of indentured servitude for my parents while they made some extra cash running a pow-wow stand. Im the only girl in my family, so the responsibility of prepping frybread dough fell to me while my mom cheffed up in the little trailer we pulled all over the plains one summer. After that, my bread making became a marketable skill; I made the mistake of admitting to someone early on in college that Yeah, I know how to make frybread! This led to more indentured servitude in fundraiser after fundraiser. These days I even teach the odd traditional foods class from time to time. Yes, I realize that frybread is NOT a traditional food. I do believe it is a gateway food however, for all sorts of Native cooking. I try to do a bit more of the healthy style of traditional cooking, though frybread will always be a home-y comfort food for me.
At any rate, I brought a lot of figurative frybread baggage with me recently when I visited Tocabe, an American Indian eatery in Denver, CO (I have a fair amount of literal frybread baggage too – but I digress). I only heard about Tocabe when I got to Denver, from my sister who messaged that I had to go there. I was convinced when I saw an elder Native woman at the conference I was attending wearing a Tocabe t-shirt that said on the back, My Heroes Have Always Cooked Frybread. I convinced my co-workers to come with me, and we nabbed a cab down to the little restaurant at 3536 West 44th Ave.
The shop set up reminded me of Qdobas in the manner in which they serve; you have a short wait in line and time to decide what you want, as the menu hangs on the wall behind the prep area. The prep team makes your order right in front of you. My co-workers ordered a massive dish of nachos w/shredded bison, black beans, onions, and cheese, and their own Indian tacos. I had a chicken taco with Osage hominy salsa, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese (you can totally put chicken on a taco, I checked, theres no code violation). With a drink, the price was really reasonable. My order was about $10 bucks for a LOT of food, and took next to no time at all for them to make. The crew was really upbeat and working their rear ends off, as the line never really dropped off a whole lot the entire time I was there.
Now heres where my baggage came in; I am damn near snooty when it comes to my bread. I think just about every Native female (or male) who knows how to make it leans that direction. Native people make entire movies about what great bread their moms/aunties/grandmas make, and theres literally an Indian-famous quote about frybread riots. Clearly, in Indian Country, breads a big deal. I came up w/awesome bread, the rising kind, and the baking powder kind, and Im totally going to go there and say, I make awesome bread. Now before all the Navajos jump down my throat about the difference in Northern and Navajo bread, I also have a straight up, wicked tradish Navajo auntie who makes, and taught all her daughters how to make, KILLER Navajo bread, so I got that street cred too.
Chicken taco perfection with Osage hominy dreaminess
With all that in mind, I can say Tocabe honestly makes really good bread. They got my stamp of approval right off the bat. The other dishes on the menu were equally phenomenal; I could have had just a bowl of the Osage hominy salsa and eaten that with a spoon. The shredded bison was just the reminder of home that I needed at that moment; it was bliss on a chip. The only thing I didnt like was that I didnt have the appetite to try some other dishes on the menu.
Diners Drive-ins and Tribes
When we were done, I was able to chat quickly with one of the owners of Tocabe, Ben Jacobs (Osage). I tried to make it quick as he was busy hustling around the entire joint, getting people their food, clearing tables, fixing dishes, and doing what any good proprietor of a restaurant does. Bens a very gracious and friendly guy and gave me and my party push-pins to mark our homelands on the map of Indian Country they keep in the restaurant. He told us about the gatherings that are sometimes hosted in the restaurant by the local Native community, and that they plan on getting online sales of t-shirts up and running soon, as they almost immediately sold out of the t-shirts I had wanted to buy. Ill be watching for em.
Mine is the red pin. Why do I wish it was bigger?
I grabbed a couple action shots of the staff cooking up a storm in the back kitchen, grabbed some bread for the road, and told him hed received the LastRealIndians stamp of approval. I dont know how impressed he was with that.
All kidding aside, I have to give props to Ben and his partners in his work; this is an innovative, entrepreneurial means of sharing Native culture; much of our cultural transmission happens through food. As they say, food is love, and Ben and his team are pouring that love into their work. It appears the patrons are returning it too its a very popular, busy place. So much so that it was featured on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, and the boys were able to teach Guy Fieri a thing or two about how to make frybread. Tocabe will also be featured in an upcoming episode of All You Can Meat, on the Travel Channel.
Folks at Tocabe, I wish you all the best in your ventures. Keep up the incredible work. Youre setting a great example for Native entrepreneurs everywhere, and LastRealIndians loves to encourage folks truly making their mark in positive ways. I also encourage our readers to check them out and show em some love, should you have the opportunity. You wont be sorry! Ill definitely be back, and Ill be bringing friends and relatives with me. (Thats not necessarily a threat; more of a heads up really, us Hidatsas got some appetites on us- just saying.)