Cafe Society

Tocabe does Chipotle one better -- with fry bread

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Like whiskey and the music of the Pogues from the Irish, tortillas from the Mexicans, prosciutto from the Italians and mother sauces and threesomes from the French, fry bread is the Native American people's proud contribution to our mutt and multicultural present, one of the most awe-inspiring culinary innovations of all time. As a base for an entire, left-hand branch of cuisine, fry bread is as important as masa, as mirepoix, as mashed potatoes. In terms of versatility, fry bread has it over just about everyone else's best idea ever.

And you can get it almost precisely nowhere.

American Indian cuisine has never really had its moment — its coming-out party, so to speak. When people talk about the world's great cuisines (the rigor of classical French, the spare simplicity of Japanese, the historic weight of Italian, the depth of the combined Chinese canon), Native American gets no play. And even when the discussion moves on to those cuisines that form the backbone of American dining (mostly immigrant, mostly Old World, with a smattering of New World Mexican and Latino and hyper-regional Americana), the natives get shut right out of the conversation. For the most part, American Indian cuisine has been relegated to stunt status: a taste here, an unusual ingredient there. True, you can get a fix of the good stuff in a few places: New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Utah and Oklahoma, isolated spots around the Pacific Northwest. County fairs west of the Mississippi will sometimes boast the odd stand selling Navajo tacos or chile beans, and then there are the pow-wows. But in most of this country, the food is completely unknown. Even a Western city like Denver had nothing by way of native grub.

Until now.

Until Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery. Brainchild of Ben Jacobs, a member of the Osage tribe out of Oklahoma and a 25-year-old lifer who moved to Denver when he was just a kid, saw his family open and close Grayhorse, a Native American place in the Tabor Center food court, went into the trade himself at fifteen and still managed college (majoring in history and Native American studies). Jacobs spotted a hole in Denver's tattered skein of ethnic and international cuisines and went after it with his whole heart, collecting recipes from his past, from his mom in Oklahoma, creating his concept, choosing his hill in northwest Denver and then planting his flag there last December. Tocabe is his baby. And its base is fry bread.

I love fry bread. Love it like a fat kid loves funnel cake. I've been an addict and a shameless pitchman for the stuff since getting my first taste years back — parked by the side of the road outside an Indian casino in southern New Mexico, standing in the red dust and wind, burning my mouth on a round of puffy fried dough hot out of the fryers and leaking grease through the double fold of butcher's paper on which it had been served. The fry bread was topped with nothing more than a bit of cinnamon, like an Indian doughnut, and I remember eating it all, as fast as I could, and then going back for seconds, this time getting it loaded with pinto beans and chiles, folded double like a pita, like a puffy taco, difficult to handle even with two hands.

Fry bread is delicious all on its own, but (like a tortilla, like a crepe) it also serves as the perfect vehicle for transporting all manner of ingredients, savory or sweet, straight into my snack-hole. Fry bread with cinnamon and powdered sugar, fry bread with desebrado, with chicken and chiles, with last night's leftover three-color beans and rajas, fry bread smeared with refritos and laid with slices of salted avocado (a hangover cure that one of my old cooks back in the Land of Enchantment swore by), fry bread — hot from the cart, the stand, the kitchen — overloaded with nuclear-red cherry filling like the best pie you've ever had in your life.

Tocabe (in Osage, the word means "blue," although this place makes me anything but) does all this with its fry bread. Most of it, anyway — and then it does more.

The Tocabe concept is fast-casual simple: It's an American Indian Chipotle with the same service model (long counter, backed by the galley pass, with all ingredients laid out in cold tables and hot tables between the customer and Jacobs's fry-bread artists), the same basic setup (a nice dining room out front, neither too big nor too small, done in polished wood and tin, everything the color of fresh corn or rich soil or fire, and an artful stone accent wall with oh-so-Southwestern candle niches), with the food served on recyclable paper plates, in recyclable plastic cups, on battered service platters that I'm nearly positive once did duty as pizza pans. Tocabe does a lot of sit-down business, a fair amount of takeout (those same paper plates, covered with a tent of foil), with big groups standing, slack-jawed, before the menu hung above the counter, trying to make their way through the looping possibilities, asking questions that are always happily answered by staffers who are incredibly friendly, welcoming and mercifully patient with new customers who have no idea what they're ordering, what they will shortly be eating. But those new customers soon become old hands. I've seen ten-tops and twelves at Tocabe, huge gatherings of fry-bread junkies all bowed over their plates with an almost religious intensity, tearing at the flash-fried dough, getting pinto beans in their mustaches.

Fry bread is like crack, like heroin. It is the drug that your parents warned you about: one hit and you're hooked for life. My first time at Tocabe, I ate the very thing I'd been craving for years: an Indian taco. The fry-bread base was topped with pulled beef (desebrado) and hominy salsa (more bright than hot), cheese and a lace of sour cream and pintos, and it came with a beautiful, sweet-hot sauce that tasted of adobo and anchos and sugar, like licking hot honey off a razor. Because I am incautious — because for me, a little is never going to be enough — after I ate that, I ordered more: chicken and black beans, hot salsa and purple onions on fresh fry bread. And then dessert: another fry bread, dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar, drizzled with honey and eaten with my fingers before it'd even cooled enough to be remotely safe.

And then I went back the next day for even more.

Tocabe does stuffed fry bread (like a calzone, or maybe a gordita, jammed full of meat and beans, then slathered in chile sauces and eaten with a knife and fork), and it does Medicine Wheel nachos (basically...nachos). The boys in the back do the fairgrounds favorite — fry bread topped with sweet cherries in thick syrup or apples the same way — that I would eat every day until the day I die if only Jacobs would agree to open his second location in my garage. And they do soup (different every day, but always served with fry bread) and kids' meals (with fry bread) and Osage pizza (made on fry bread). Because Jacobs knows (like I know) that fry bread is magic: Make it and they will come. Tocabe also has a liquor license, so there are beers on tap, some bottles, some wines, and I'm already envisioning sitting outside in the sun with a hot Indian taco and a cold beer once the patio opens.

For all Tocabe does, I still like the purest hit best, so I've returned again and again for plain Indian tacos, for fry bread topped with chile beans and hominy salsa, with pulled beef or buffalo (the ground beef is a little dry, a little dull) or chicken, and then retired to my table to eat with the same fixity of purpose I have seen on the other faces around me, to get square with my own memories, to feed my own strong addictions. I just keep shoveling the stuff in, fighting to fill a hole six years deep and wide, all the time I have been forced to spend in a world without fry bread.

I'm not there yet, but I'm catching up, slowly taking the edge off my need. Still, even with all Tocabe does, I doubt I'll ever be able to get enough.