Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe is a great concept. It is located within the National Museum of the American Indian and features menus that are supposed to reflect the native cuisines of people from various regions of the Americas, including the North Woods, the Northwest Coast, the Great Plains, Mesoamerica and South America. I went straight to the Great Plains section for a Navajo taco, which is basically a classic ground beef taco on frybread (essentially a Navajo fried dough) instead of a tortilla. The first time I tried to go to Mitsitam Cafe, over a year before this visit, they were out of frybread entirely.
This time, I waited in a long line to find out that, happily, they did have Navajo tacos though they were out of the pinto beans that would have been a tasty complement to the ground beef. I didn’t mind too much, but the vegetarian lady ahead of me was S.O.L. As I browsed the rest of the cafeteria area, I noticed that them being out of things was a bit of a theme. In the Northwest Coast section, for example, they appeared to be out of almost everything on the menu.
Then there was the issue of authenticity. While Navajo tacos don’t date back to pre-Columbian times, they have become a touchstone of Native American culture in the US. The same cannot be said for some of the food in other sections. In the Mesomerica section, the offerings didn’t go far beyond tacos and burritos and even (shudder) burrito bowls. I know that the many elements of modern Mexican food come from indigenous cooking traditions but if I wanted tacos and burritos, I’d go to Chipotle. Why not offer molé poblano or something? The situation in the South America section was even worse. They had lomo saltado on the menu, which is essentially a Peruvian take on Lo Mein from a tradition known as Chifa. Chifa is Chinese Peruvian cuisine brought to Peru by Chinese immigrants who adapted the foods of their homeland to suit the ingredients available in Peru. Chifa is a fantastic culinary tradition and one that I absolutely love. But it’s out of place in a cafe purporting to feature the foods of indigenous peoples.
When I went to check out, the chaos that seems to define Mitsitam Cafe returned. The lines for the cash registers were long, likely because only two of the four registers were staffed despite how busy the place was. And when I went to get silverware, there was not a metal fork in sight so I went for the plastic utensils.
To sum it up, this place is a great idea but really needs to work on its execution and authenticity.