Even the most intrepid sightseer has to eat. In a deeply visitor-oriented environment (read: touristy), this is tricky sometimes, and the eater who's traveling with a youngster or a more hesitant adult companion can end up in the nether world of chicken nuggets and frozen french fries. I've been there. My first vacation with a child paired me with my 10-year-old son on a trip to New Orleans. I felt triumphant that I could persuade him to eat boiled shrimp.
With that in mind and needing lunch on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the other day, I headed for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. My local food spy had told me its feeding was intriguing and, frequently, of a superior quality. At the least, he assured me, it would be more interesting than most of the food at any of its sister institutions arranged along the Mall. And admission is free.
First of all, this is a lovely, lovely building, glowing gold in the sunlight and with an atrium that uses prisms in a small side mirror to cast rainbows on its floor More than one young visitor cavorted through them while Pa took photos. The museum collection itself isn't as large as some of its siblings, but it's an interesting place full of beauty and information. Besides, the gift shop is quite excellent.
Alas for the aching feet, this is a food-station-style cafeteria, something that really doesn't quite gibe with a place that can go as high as $26 for an entree with two sides. But there certainly are less expensive, less intimidating options on the numerous menus, all of which refer to Native Americans from various geographic areas. The list includes Mesoamerican, Northern Woodlands, South American, Northwest Coast and Great Plains.
This is interpreted pretty loosely, though, so it's possible to get turkey sandwiches, burgers and salads, for instance. The young eaters I saw seemed pretty happy, except for impatience at the length of time the adults were lolling about talking and resting their feet. And why not have food that can appeal to a wide audience? There's no reason why french fries and Indian fry bread (both available with spicy buffalo chili) can't come out of the same kitchen.
My slices of grilled buffalo came out of the Northwest Coast section, an odd juxtaposition – whoever thinks of buffalo around Oregon and Washington? But its sauce, of Saskatoon Berries and leeks, was mildly sweet, deeply purple and tasted fresh. Saskatoon berries resemble blueberries, and the city in Canada is named for them, not vice versa. Buffalo is seldom deeply tender, it seems, but on the chewmeter, this came in pretty well, and it was extremely flavorful. Next visit, I'm thinking it'll be the buffalo/duck burger for me.
I went to the adjoining Mesoamerican counter for sides, a watermelon salsa and another salsa of sour cherries seasoned with chipotle. Two-ounce servings of each made them real sides rather than just a polite gesture. The watermelon was nothing exciting, pretty much a standard fresh tomato-onion-jalapeno-cilantro salsa with some diced melon thrown in. But the cherry chipotle was a stunner. It was better with the slices of grilled buffalo than the berries, the smoky fruit coming first, followed by a mild, slow burn.
The meal ended with a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler with a biscuit dough crust. The biscuit dough was thicker than usual, but tender and the strawberry rhubarb mixture leaned toward the rhubarb, a good thing for those of us who prefer tartness.
Look for a seat overlooking the garden, rest your tootsies and muse on the contributions the Native American cultures have given to the American diet.
Misitam Native Foods Cafe
National Museum of the American Indian
4th St. & Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC
Lunch and snacks daily except December 25
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Very good
Sandwiches and Entrees: $8-$17