Pedro de Castaneda, a Spanish explorer who chronicled Coronado’s expeditions through the southwest from 1540 to 1542 observed that corn, beans, and squash were the main staples of the pueblo diet. Of the three, which have come to be known as “Three Sisters,” corn was the most important. It was boiled whole, toasted on the cob, or dried and ground into a fine powder easily cooked as bread or gruel. Every day female family members knelt before metates (grinding stones), grinding corn to feed their gods, fetishes and kin. One crushed the maize, the next ground it and the third ground it even finer. Castaneda observed that the women worked joyfully at this task. The three sisters of corn, beans and squash remain an integral part of the pueblo diet.
Think “pueblo harvest” and the first image the term evokes is likely of the classical “horn of plenty” motif depicting a bountiful cornucopia in which corn, beans and squash spill out of a goat’s horn. This rich symbolism of pueblo life also represents the cuisine at the Pueblo Harvest Cafe, a restaurant which celebrates the culinary traditions of New Mexico’s nineteen Indian pueblos and showcases the three sisters in various delicious dishes. Among those culinary tradition are several shared with Spanish settlers. New Mexico’s Native American Pueblos utilize red and green chile in their cooking as much as anyone in the Land of Enchantment. Chile is a prominent ingredient on the Pueblo Harvest menu.
The Cafe is housed within the sprawling Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center was launched in 1976 to highlight the historical and contemporary accomplishments of New Mexico’s pueblos from pre-Columbian time to the present. Its mission is “to preserve and perpetuate Pueblo culture and to advance understanding by presenting with dignity and respect, the accomplishments and evolving history of the Pueblo people of New Mexico.” A prominent symbol throughout the Cultural Center as well as in the art of New Mexico’s pueblos is that of Avanu, the water serpent. Avanu represents both water and the prayer for life-giving waters which are so critical for life in the desert.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s focus is a 10,000 square foot museum visited by more than 200,000 people per year. A permanent exhibit highlights the creativity and adaptation which made possible the survival, diversity and achievements of each of the nineteen Pueblos. In addition to the on-site museum, the Center includes a children’s museum, gift shops, a smoke shop and the Pueblo Harvest Cafe. One of the most popular museum attraction is the several hornos, beehive-shaped outdoor adobe ovens in which breads…and more are baked. The “more” includes horno-baked pizza, all-you-can-eat with live music on the patio on Friday and Saturday evenings from 6-9PM.
Although we’d been in Albuquerque for nearly eight years, it took a recommendation from celebrity chef Bobby Flay to first shame us into first trying the Pueblo Harvest Cafe. Before he became a primadonna glitterati, Flay actually seemed to spend more time in New Mexico than in his native New York. He raved about the Pueblo Harvest’s tamales in one of his many Food Network shows and he knows a bit about tamales, featuring them on the menu throughout his restaurant empire.
The Cafe is tastefully decorated with the art of talented Pueblo artists. It is a large restaurant with comfortable accommodations for the copious visitors who frequent the Center. On many of the restaurant’s tables you’ll find a artfully decorated bowl called a “spirit bowl.” It’s purpose is for diners to give thanks for their bounty to ancestral spirits. This act of gratitude is undertaken by placing a very small portion of your meal into the spirit bowl.
The menu is a showcase of the southwestern cuisine which resulted from a fusion of Native American, Spanish and Mexican ingredients and culinary traditions. It is a multi-page menu that features exciting and delicious dishes. Portions are as generous as the Pueblo peoples. The menu calls its breakfast “Sunrise Over the Sandias,” which as residents of the Albuquerque metropolitan area know tends to be a spectacular display of otherworldly colors. It’s one of the reasons locals tend to have sunnier dispositions than say, residents of a dreary climed area.
A more conventional (at least for New Mexico) breakfast entree is the Cafe’s Zuni blue corn pancakes cooked on the Pueblo Harvest’s hot rock. Blue corn is very common throughout the Southwest. It imbues the pancakes with a rich nutlike flavor (this doesn’t mean grainy). Served with piñon butter, maple syrup (the real stuff) and your choice of bacon, ham, or sausage, they’re absolutely addictive. A more “acquired” taste is the cafe’s blue corn atole, a blue corn porridge served with raisins, pecans, milk and brown sugar (and a side of oven-bread toast). If you like oatmeal, you’ll love blue corn atole.
The breakfast menu includes several “build your own breakfast” options such as “build your own omelet” and “build your own burrito.” Unfortunately no longer on the menu is one of the more traditional Native American burritos. At the Pueblo Harvest, it was called Mama’s burrito, which started with a large homemade tortilla, but instead of the usual bacon, ham or sausage, the meat of choice here is fried baloney. Alternatively you can substitute Spam for the baloney. Don’t laugh. Having grown up within the confines of the Picuris Pueblo reservation, I can attest to the deliciousness of fried baloney in a burrito. (Decades later barbecued baloney became my very favorite barbecued anything in Memphis, Tennessee). The fried baloney was sliced a little thinner than I’m used to, but it had a great smoky taste which is better than just about any hot dog. The Cafe added green chile (medium in the piquancy scale), cheese and hashed browns to Mama’s burrito. I may start a grassroots campaign to reinstate this delicious treasure onto its rightful place on the menu.
From the Pueblo Harvest Bakery, you can take home a loaf of ovenbread or a green chile-cheese bread, both of which form the foundation of an excellent sandwich and an unbelievable French toast. The bakery also offers Pueblo cookies, homemade Pueblo pies (peach, cherry, prune or apple), homemade scones, assorted muffins, cinnamon rolls and an ovenbread pudding with caramel sauce. My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, will have to forgive me for not yet having tried the ovenbread pudding. Bread pudding is a passion we share and though we’ve both tried dozens of bread puddings throughout the Land of Enchantment (and beyond), ovenbread pudding is probably a first for both of us. Because my marriage is very egalitarian, my dutiful bride got her way during our most recent visit and we split a cinnamon roll instead of having bread pudding. Good choice! Roughly the size of a bail of hay, these are truly cinnamony and delicious.
The lunch menu includes only four appetizers, but with legions of sides available, you’ll certainly find a sumptuous starter to your liking. Maybe it’ll be a bowl of beans, fry bread, a homemade tortilla or perhaps tricolor corn chips will tempt you loudest, especially since they’re served with homemade salsa, guacamole and chile con queso. The tricolor–red, blue and yellow–chips are a veritable mountain of chips. You’ll finish the salsa, guacamole and con queso while making barely a dent on the chips. The chips are low in salt and work well whether you’re a “chip dipper” or prefer shovel-sized-scoops of salsa. Prominent in this salsa’s flavor are cilantro, garlic and jalapeno. Not so prominent is piquancy. It may as well have been made from bell peppers. The guacamole and con queso are both better than the salsa though neither has much bite.
Another Pueblo Harvest favorite no longer on the menu is a mountainous appetizer featuring corn fries (French fry shaped soy coated with a corn meal mixture then fried) slathered with melted cheese and topped with lettuce, tomatoes and seasoned beef then served with a side of guacamole. The golden corn fries had a unique texture that may take some getting used to and by themselves were only so-so, but were wonderful when dipped into the guacamole. Come to think of it, a grassroots campaign might be needed to bring the corn fries back to the menu.
While MTV generation pop culturalists might only recognize mutton from an episode of Seinfeld, to many New Mexicans, mutton stew is one of the many delicious benefits of living in a diverse, multi-cultural state. For me, mutton stew evokes images of Navajo sheepherders tending their flocks beneath the shadows of Monument Valley’s imposing megaliths on a cold autumn day. At the Pueblo Harvest, the vegetable rich mutton stew is hearty, delicious–and maybe a tad under-salted (you’ve got to appreciate that). A cup or bowl of this excellent stew comes from the menu’s “Pueblo soups and stews” section. The Cafe’s green chile stew is also quite good.
The Pueblo Harvest might not be one of the first restaurants you think about when considering a great burger, but it belongs in the conversation. Trust me on this one! It’s one of the best burgers in the Duke City–and you truly can have it your way. The “build your own burger” option lets you choose your own bread (homemade tortilla, frybread, corn dusted bun, or ovenbread), your own “burger” (hand-pressed beef patty, chicken breast or garden burger) and your own toppings (Swiss cheese, Cheddar cheese, American cheese, green chile, red chile, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, bacon, guacamole, chopped green chili (sic) and sliced jalapeños. A ground beef patty is available for a few dollars more. All burgers come standard with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle with mustard and ketchup on the side. They are served with French fries, but you can upgrade to blue corn onion rings or stew for a pittance.
The hand-formed beef patty is terrific–grilled to your exacting specifications (medium for me), seasoned perfectly and with a nice degree of moistness. It also covers the entire bun. Ovenbread is an outstanding choice. The ovenbread is lightly toasted and absolutely fantastic. At first glance it may not appear formidable enough to hold up against the weight of other ingredients, but that won’t prove to be a problem. With Swiss cheese, two slices of bacon, red onion and mustard, this is a terrific burger, one that introduced us to the possibilities of so many ingredient combinations. A side of blue corn onion rings beats French fries any day.
Years ago we attended a Native American Pow-Wow on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and were crushingly disappointed by an Indian taco the purveyors of which boasted was “the best in the world.” Since then we’ve been wary of so-called Indian tacos. While the ingredients of most Indian tacos appear fairly standard, in many cases, we’ve found the preparation and quality of those tacos to be very unequal–in most cases, bordering on abysmal. The Pueblo Harvest’s version is among the best we’ve had, thanks in large part to the fry bread lovingly crafted by fry bread makers (in the tradition begun by Acoma Pueblo’s renown fry bread maker Zelda Chaplin). This “Tiwa Taco” is crafted with seasoned beef, grated cheese, tomatoes and beans sandwiched between two golden fry bread orbs.
The lunch menu includes some surprises, including a unique interpretation of one of America’s favorite comfort foods. The Sandia Southwest Meatloaf is meatloaf with an attitude. The attitude comes from a chipotle ketchup with a kick to it. Frankly, the meatloaf wouldn’t have much of a personality without it. It’s a rather stiff meatloaf bound together tightly and rather one-note in composition. That note is bison and it’s very lean and more than a bit desiccated. It comes with mashed potatoes (no gravy) which also benefit from the chipotle ketchup.
The Cafe’s Pojoaque carne adovada plate is as good as any carne adovada at most New Mexican restaurants (and would be even better without the barely discernible cumin influence). Tender tendrils of shredded pork are delicious. The carne is topped with melted cheese and is offered with your choice of Indian fried bread or a tortilla, both of which are humongous.
The Pueblo Harvest Cafe will feed you very well. The prolific portions will make dessert an option for only the heartiest of appetites. That’s too bad because the menu lists several tempting dessert offerings. At the very least, try to save room for the restaurant’s biscochitos (pictured above right). Biscochitos are the official state cookie of New Mexico. The Cafe’s version of this terrific holiday cookie is thin and blessed with plenty of anise.
If you thought a burrito with baloney strange, you might think me nuts for recommending the Cafe’s prune pie. Prune pie has long been a standard among New Mexico’s northern pueblos. Go to any high school graduation or even wedding involving a Pueblo citizen and you’ll find prune pie among the dessert offerings. Most guests prefer it to the cloying, inch-thick frosted, store-bought cakes. There’s a good reason for that. Prune pie, whether heated or served cold, is delicious with nice pronouncements of sweet and tangy flavors.
Characteristic of New Mexico’s Pueblo peoples, the Pueblo Harvest Cafe will treat you like a welcome guest. Like the people it represents, the Cafe is a state treasure.
The Pueblo Harvest Cafe
2401 12th Street, N.W.
LATEST VISIT: 01 April 2012
# OF VISITS: 8
BEST BET: Tiwa Taco, Corn Fries, Mutton Stew, Blue Corn Pancakes, Pojoaque Carne Adovada Plate, Mama’s Burrito, Biscochitos, Prune Pie, Cinnamon Roll, Sandia Southwestern Meatloaf, Hamburger, Tricolor Corn Chips