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Finding Indian fry bread in Phoenix
The Fry Bread House
With the Arizona State Fair in full-swing and the approach of a kinder, gentler clime; I thought about going to the fair for what I knew as a Navajo taco or a turkey Leg or something on a stick. When fair- food mood strikes, there is no escaping it. What the heck it’s only once a year.
It was about 5 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, traffic was thick enough to discourage my trek to the Madhouse on McDowell. I somehow ended up on Seventh Avenue, just north of Indian School Rd. I had resigned myself to another year-long wait for my fair-food fix. That’s when I saw it, a red and white neon lit sign in the window of a small building that just read Open. I had not been in this neighborhood in awhile and strained to see what it was.
Was this a dream, or a serious case of serendipity?
Upon closer inspection I saw the red painted letters that read; The Fry Bread House.
I pulled into the tight parking lot and found one open space out of maybe fifteen. As I entered I saw three signs: Order Here, Phone Orders and Pick up Here, all three hung above the counter.
One prominent sign read “Tohono O’oadham” owned and operated. TheTohono O’oadham, ( Desert People) were known as the Papago Indians for much of the last century and as Pima by the Spaniards.
The name Papago was abandoned supposedly for its meaning of bean-eaters. The Tohono O’oadham inhabit Southern Arizona and northern Mexico and at one time inhabited the largest reservation in the Sonoran desert.
There were two people ahead of me and about twelve seated at tables and booths. There were two or three plastic covered menus on the counter but no menu boards.
There was one man behind the counter taking orders and maybe six or more women in the visible kitchen. I ordered just an Indian Taco($5.19) , as the first choice under the heading specialty tacos. The man asked for my first name and gave me change, before asking if I wanted hot sauce; I said yes.
The Navajo tacos that I recall from years, (fairs) past were served open-faced and covered with cooked beans in a spicy sauce, then shredded cheese and lettuce. The dinner-plate sized tacos were unwieldy at best; especially balanced on the large square of waxed paper offered as the only container. Trying to eat them while meandering through the crowds, was half the fun.
I saw a few people seated at tables enjoying plates of fried bread with toppings and others with Styrofoam bowls, which I learned were filled with either red or green Chili, vegetable beef stew, hominy beef stew or Menudo, ( white or Red.) The bowls ranged in price from $3.09-$2.85 for the Menudo. A plain fry bread to accompany the bowls of stew was $2.29. Flour tortillas were also available for $1.45.
As I waited, I looked around at the Native American artwork adorning the beige walls. Some was very neo-classical and all very colorful. A picture of Lori Piestewa, (fallen Arizona Native- American soldier), hung proudly above a bulletin board.
As I waited, I watched a large mixer constantly churning. Occasionally a woman would dip into a bag of Bread flour and sprinkle it in the mixing bowl, alternating with water, salt and shortening. When the mixture was done, she would transfer it to a larger bowl and grasp it with her hands squeezing out baseball-sized balls of dough that were trayed up and covered with plastic wrap and walked over to a reach- in refrigerator; probably for a resting period. Things seemed quite chaotic in the kitchen. I recognized the flustered red-faced scowl that I wore so often as a young cook, during the Saturday night rush, years earlier when nothing seemed to go smoothly.
They seemed to be overly busy for the scant fifteen or so of us. One female patron sat, eyes glazed over, glancing longingly at the pick- up window anytime she saw activity there.
After the first twenty five minutes, I understood why. During this time about twenty or more patrons flooded into the small place. There were a number of Native American diners; which I viewed as a good sign.
After another fifteen minutes, I began to worry. How long can it take to put together a taco? For a brief moment I wondered if my pale-faced complexion was adding to the delay but alas; I saw a table full of braves that took longer than me to get served.
I did eventually get my taco; I had ordered it to go. It was placed in a Styrofoam clam shell box and the box placed in a plastic loop-handled bag. I ran to my car in an attempt to get it home before it got cold. I was only five minutes away.
When I got home, I opened the box in anticipation and saw that the large dinner-plate sized fry bread had been folded in half much like a Mexican taco. I had never seen it done like that. It was unfortunately cold, but upon lifting it to peek inside, I noticed no sauce from the beans, and in fact they looked like commonplace refried beans served at any restaurant in the city. The beans were of a spread- able consistency, instead of rich and saucy. It had been sprinkled with grated cheddar cheese, (unmelted) and shredded lettuce. ( melted) There was a small plastic cup of red Chile sauce and a plastic pouch of silverware and a napkin. The sauce was quite spicy and obviously homemade.
Earlier I had noticed a stack of golden brown rounds of fry bread stacked up on a table. I wondered if they had run out of dough and were frantically making more and trying to conserve the dozen or so pre-cooked ones. Bowls of the stews were coming out quickly as were flour tortillas.
This was too bad because fresh hot fry bread topped with juicy spicy beans and cheese is what I have come to expect. The room temperature fry bread might have been acceptable if topped with piping hot saucy, spicy beans to aid in its reheating.
The menu listed fry bread treats which included golden honey, ($2.89), powdered sugar, ($2.89) and chocolate and butter, ($3.39)
Specialty tacos also included chorizo or Chile. The Begetarian [sic] taco was $5.99
Under the heading Tasty Alteratives [sic], were listed tamales and tostadas. Flour tortilla burros were also listed.
The Fry Bread House is homey enough and the small music-less dining room is comfortable. I will give them another try. All places have an occasional bad Saturday night. The employees are friendly and prices are low. I hope that my next trip finds fresh hot fry bread with piping hot toppings, produced in less than forty-five minutes.
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