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Mitsitam Cafe, Native American Cuisine - Chef Jerome Grant at the National Museum of the American Indian


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How about a visit to the Museum of the American Indian on the Mall? The cafeteria is an unbelievably cool experience. Seriously, it is a really unique experience...

Mitsitam Cafe

"Mitsitam" means "Let's eat!" in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples. The museum's Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe enhances the museum experience by providing visitors the opportunity to enjoy the indigenous cuisines of the Americas and to explore the history of Native foods. The cafe features Native foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America, and the Great Plains. Each food station depicts regional lifeways related to cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors found in both traditional and contemporary dishes. While seated in the cafe, visitors can look out a wall of windows to view the Native habitat and water features of the museum's landscaping.

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If you order any of the sandwiches (mmmmm buffalo) that come on frybread, ask politely for a warm one. It's likely that you'll be there when it's swarming and turnover will be high, rendering that unnecessary.

My parents told me stories of driving along lonely desert roads in the Southwest and getting frybread from roadside stands- I love the stuff. Milady and I have a workable recipe for it that we use to make huge-ass tacos.

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I often bring visiting relatives to the Mitsitam specifically for the Northwest region, certainly the healthiest (and seemingly highbrow) of the offerings there. I love the carrot and parsnip salad and the planked salmon. The food's a bit pricy, but pretty much worth it.

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With family visiting and taking a tour of the Capitol, I suggested we meet here for lunch. The food was quite good--some things better than others, but there is so much to choose from I'd go back to try some more. The museum is beautiful, and the atmosphere alone makes it feel less of a "cafeteria." I had the buffalo burger with green chiles, which looked a bit like a hockey puck. It wasn't terrible, and it wasn't great. My MIL had the pulled buffalo, which she said was very good, albeit a tad too salty. Mr. Squids had the cedar plank salmon and an eel & hominy salad. The salmon and eel were proclaimed to be winners, but the hominy was a little dry. My FIL had chile with fry bread--he said the chile was good, although not the best he's had, but that fry bread--he didn't stop talking about it even on the trip home! (He did share and we all agreed ;) ) Visiting cousins had some kind of fajita/salad combos and I think a tamale (I can't recall, but they really enjoyed their meals as well.) The winner of the meal for me was a cup of soup, listed only as "chocolate coconut soup" Chocolatey, smooth, rich, not sweet, no apparent flavor of coconut, and a bit of chile for an underlying heat. This alone is worth a trip back for me!

We were unaware of the events planned for Saturday at the museum, so I'm glad our plans worked out to go on Friday instead of Saturday. They were setting up the stages and there were camera crews filming when we arrived, and a band was playing as we were leaving. Saw it all on the news at 11, with the announcement of the museum as a late added location for the Live Earth concert.

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The winner of the meal for me was a cup of soup, listed only as "chocolate coconut soup" Chocolatey, smooth, rich, not sweet, no apparent flavor of coconut, and a bit of chile for an underlying heat. This alone is worth a trip back for me!
Any ideas on how it was made? Someone on a mailing list I'm on had this on a recent trip to DC and is trying to figure out a recipe. (She asked at the cafe but they wouldn't give the recipe, as apparently they have a cookbook coming out soon.) She described it as being like a mole soup, which sounds in line with your description.
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Still the most interesting food anywhere near the Smithsonian Metro, except maybe when the USDA farmers' market is operating. We stopped in for an inter-museum nosh and found a tasty tamale with chicken (maybe a smidge too much water in the masa, but it was pleasantly light), frog's legs ("they should have removed the feet"), and a rather expensive lobster roll. But no sign of the pawpaw pudding this year :blink:

They've been carrying gelato and sorbet from Dolcezza in a mini-freezer right in the center, but it's a bit more than I'd want in one sitting, and you can't take food out of Mitsitam. Phooey.

Smithsonian Associates - remember to ask for your discount at the register. It's worth 10%, which softens the pricing a bit.

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There are lots of reasons NOT to eat inside a museum, I can't even remember the last time that I did, but you won't find any of those reasons at Mitsitam, I can tell you that.

I am convinced that there were more people in the cafe than in the museum at any given time, in fact, the people sitting next to us just came to eat, not to check out the museum. I can understand why, an amazing array of food from five different regions. It is a bit overwhelming, they could really use some order in that place, it was a madhouse, but that is my only complaint. It actually is a pretty big complaint though, it was a Saturday afternoon, but getting your food is almost a game in of itself. How many people can almost run me over trying to find the chicken fingers!? Yesterday, it was about six.

Anyway, the food it great, we overordered because so many things looked good. The fry bread was wonderful, chewy on the outside, soft on the inside. The two soups that we had - roasted squash with duck confit and golden beet with crab - were the two best dishes other than the fry bread. The buffalo shank was solid and a good portion size, but the venison loin stuffed with root vegetables and a blackberry sauce was a bit dry and a bit small in portion size, yet still light years ahead on anything else I have had in a museum. I can't remember the few side dishes that we had, but they were average. With a bottle of water and a soda the total was $44 for the two entrees, two soups, some side dishes and fry bread, easily the most I have ever spent to eat in a museum, but well worth the price.

Personally, I really liked this place, but it would be interesting to see how good the food would be if NOT served in a cafeteria setting. The soups probably would taste the same, but I am sure that the entrees would be kicked up a level if made as ordered. I know that they can't do this at Mitsitam, but it would be great to see a "real" restaurant serving food like this, damn interesting.

PS: To be honest, we went to the National Museum of the American Indian to eat at Mitsitam, not really to go to the museum itself, but please don't miss the museum. The building itself is amazing, the architecture is a sight in of itself, and the exhibits aren't half bad either.

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This is one of the hidden gems of Washington. It's all of a combination of kid-friendly (hey, you get a free museum with lunch!) and good eats, and not for much money. I've had the bison burger (Plains), the maple turkey (Northeast) and the planked salmon (northwest) and I don't have a single complaint. Atmosphere is very cafeteria, but this is a can't-miss lunch event for a lazy day of museum hopping the District....

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It is a bit overwhelming, they could really use some order in that place, it was a madhouse, but that is my only complaint. It actually is a pretty big complaint though, it was a Saturday afternoon, but getting your food is almost a game in of itself.

From personal experience, I can tell you, "Let's all meet up at the cash register in ten minutes" is a viable strategy here. But as you say, it's worth the chaos: For a bustling public museum, it can't possibly get much better than this. How many covers do you think they do on a busy weekend, from 10 AM through 5 PM, maybe 1,500? (That would be 3-4 people a minute for 7 hours.) I think it might be higher than that.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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This is one of the hidden gems of Washington. It's all of a combination of kid-friendly (hey, you get a free museum with lunch!) and good eats, and not for much money. I've had the bison burger (Plains), the maple turkey (Northeast) and the planked salmon (northwest) and I don't have a single complaint. Atmosphere is very cafeteria, but this is a can't-miss lunch event for a lazy day of museum hopping the District....
I spend a lot of time at the Smithsonian museums - Mitsitam is leaps and bounds better than the crap available at the Museum of Natural History and the fast horrors of the Air & Space.

Looks like the cookbook is out, and fry bread is listed as one of the recipes. I may buy it as a Christmas present for a few people.

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I know it's a long family weekend, but I was surprised to see Mitsitam absolutely packed on Friday afternoon, with about a 5-10 minute wait out the entrance. Once inside, the lines at the individual stations were bad as well. Guess the word is out.

The food has never been inexpensive, but the curiosity factor has generally justified the price. Not so with the beverages though...$3 is bad enough for fairly weak agua fresca, but it's highway robbery for an individual bottle of ordinary national-brand apple juice. Especially since you can't take it with you.

Still worth bringing adult out-of-towners to, but with a gaggle of kids in tow you might be better off sticking with the ridiculously visible McD's concession (what's with the fleet of useless minitrucks all over the sidewalks?) at Air & Space.

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I continue to be impressed, almost amazed, by Mitsitam. One thing I've learned here is that as daring as the dishes may be, the execution is deceptively bland - not in a bad way, but certainly reflecting the realism of feeding the masses: This must be the busiest restaurant in Washington, DC during the day, and I suspect on some days, by the time they close at 5:15 PM, they've cranked out 1,000-2,000 covers.

From the Pacific Northwest section came a remarkable Buffalo Shank ($10.75), attached to a bone brimming with marrow, braised in red wine and served with root vegetables. A side salad of Anasazi Beans ($3.05) came with similar seasonal vegetables and a piece of golden beet.

The Northern Woodlands often produces the most interesting dishes here. I hadn't had mincemeat in years, and a Traditional Mincemeat Pie ($11.50) reminds me that mincemeat is a dish that often sounds better than it actually tastes - this was a good version, made with venison, black barley, and dried fruits topped with a flaky pasty shell. It was ordered with a side of Scarlet Runner Beans ($3.05), which came with roasted green cabbage and bits of house-cured pork. An Agua Fresca ($3.05) made with amaranth and sweet plantain tasted a lot like an horchata to me, with strong flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg.

I generally like the desserts at Mitsitam, but a Rosemary Pinenut Tart ($4.50) looked a little better than it was, the tart itself being a little heavy although it had a nice kick of lemon cream hidden underneath the top layer of pinenuts.

How does Mitsitam keep such high quality with such high volume?

Cheers,

Rocks.

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I visited Mitsitam two times over the holiday break with my kids and each time shared a frye bread (with honey and powdered sugar) and Mexican hot chocolate. Both were excellent both times. The bread was warm and a little crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside (like a good donut) and the hot chocolate had a good balance of chocolate and spice. The other food looked and smelled good, but we just wanted a little snack. This place is a gem on the Mall.

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I'd like to add my own shout-out to Mitsitam. . Wonderfully prepared foods, excellent ingredients. The dishes are more contemporary riffs on foods that Native Americans in various areas ate than historically authentic cuisine, but they're darned good. No contest, the best meal we had in a recent 4-day trip to DC, though our scope was severely limited by the demands of my wife's convention, which had us stuck out at National Harbor most of the time.

At Mitsitam, I had 2 chunks of braised pork belly with South American spices. Wonderfully browned & crisped fat on the exterior. So rich & huge, I had to stop halfway through the second piece, I could not go on. This is a dish to be shared unless you have a huge appetite. Excellent lentils & chorizo, and a refereshing cabbage salad with pineapple & Mexican spiced peanuts. A perfect combo. With dessert, I spent $26, the most I've spent for a lunch in years. Worth it.

My wife had some sort of chicken burrito, the filling was tasty. We shared a fabulous blackberry tart afterwards. (See what I mean, I don't think that Native Americans made French pastries, but I'm sure they ate blackberries.)

We got there quite late for a lunch - around 2:30 - no problem getting a table right by the window.

I seriously want to go back there for another couple of meals, there was so much I couldn't try in one shot.

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Just bought the book for friends and had lunch there today - lentil salad with chorizo, wild rice salad (I get this every time) and chestnut mashed potatoes, plus fry bread for my son. All delicious - I love this place . . . .

Fans of the Mitsitam Cafe might enjoy a copy of the just published Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook as a holiday gift in case you are searching for ideas for that special someone who already has everything.

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I've never seen such a meaty turtle soup as the one served at the Northern Woodlands counter. Chunks, not shreds, in a rich broth; it's practically a stew. I should have picked up a plain frybread from one of the other stations to dip. Follow it with a helping of the sweet bean cake in paw paw pudding for dessert.

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Planned a trip and rendezvous at the Native American museum for this weekend with the main reason being the opportunity to eat at the Mitsitam Cafe.  What I didn't plan for was that my old friend and visitor is not a big fan of at least Southwestern native food having lived in New Mexico  for quite a few years and having not enjoyed that which he had sampled.  On Saturday the museum was crowded.  A protest was going on planned by the Cowboy and Indian Alliance against the XL pipeline.  On a side note, while waiting outside, I was sitting next to the man in the yellow vest in the picture.  He is the President of the Lalakotah Indian tribe and had come in from South Dakota.  Very nice gentlemen and it was an interesting conversation.

By the time my friend arrived we were both starving and went right to the cafe.  Oh my it was crowded and understaffed.  The menus looked interesting but the staffing was weak and the lines were long.  I ended up with of all things turkey, if only because of the staffing limitations.   I'll have to go back.  The menu is too interesting and diverse to avoid...I'll just try and hit it on a less busy day.

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