For a Native Eatery, Fast Is Fresh
From flash-frying to fresh produce, an Osage restaurateur likes to think about health as well as taste when he assembles Native menu items to please a growing clientele.
Ben Jacobs, co-owner with Matt Chandra of Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery, located in northwest Denver, has many food tricks up his sleeve. For example, he has recrafted traditional frybread to retain taste and texture, while frying it for only 20 to 30 seconds in a canola–corn oil blend—rather than the typical four minutes in lard.
“That frybread is the bomb,” said Guy Fieri, the face of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” in an episode that aired September 12. He acknowledged that his TV program has examined foods from many cultures, but “one of the foods we haven’t learned about is Native American food.”
It was a knowledge gap that Fieri has filled with zest. He proclaimed Jacobs’s blueberry barbecue sauce “to die for” and said that when paired with sage-rubbed bison ribs, it revealed “huge, huge flavor.” He also praised the corn salsa with cranberries, the hominy salsa, and the marinated, grilled chicken. He also heaped plaudits on the staff.
Tocabe can trace its heritage back to a Native-oriented food-court establishment in downtown Denver operated by Jacobs’s parents some 20 years ago and to his Osage heritage—evident in the name Tocabe, derived from the Osage word for “blue.”
As if to underscore the restaurant’s recent prominence, First Nations Development Institute—a Longmont, Colorado agency that invests in and supports the tribal nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors in strengthening Indian economies—recently spotlighted Tocabe in its online series Native Entrepreneurs: Faces and Stories of Economic Development.
Watch First Nation Development Institute’s video spotlight on Tocabe:
Jacobs points out that one pastime of Indian people is getting together and feasting, which is reflected in Tocabe’s varied menu. Choices range from green chile to bison ribs, Medicine Wheel nachos, and Little Osage pizza. The ever-present frybread can be found in American Indian tacos and stuffed tacos, or as a dessert when topped with honey, cinnamon or powdered sugar.
But Jacobs’s frybread, while flavorful, is comparatively healthy. “And it still comes out fluffy.”
His personal version of this classic absorbs less than one tablespoon of oil, based on an analysis that he and his staff have conducted of approximately a half-million pieces of the stuff. (The formula is based on 250,000 pieces of frybread sold yearly, and Tocabe will be three years old in December.) Osage-style frybread—which includes flour, baking powder, water, milk and a touch of honey—brings the Native staple “to the forefront of the Denver restaurant community,” as Jacobs puts it. It has zero trans fats and is served fresh to each customer who requests it solo or with meat and other toppings—the familiar “Indian taco.”
Other Tocabe specialties include offerings that incorporate lettuce, cheese and such salsa ingredients as tomatoes and onions that are purchased locally, when possible, and prepared on the spot to avoid off-site processing. Beans arrive dry and are soaked and cooked at the restaurant; dry corn for corn soup does come from a distant source (Pennsylvania) in 50-pound boxes. Consistently fresh chicken, locally raised, and beef are marinated or dry-rubbed on the spot. Jacobs picks up bison meat himself from a local business, which supplies Tocabe in units of 250 pounds of bison chuck meat and 12 cases of bison ribs.
It’s all in a day’s work for this hard-working restaurateur. “People think—or at least used to think—that Native cuisine is unhealthy,” he says. “But we make it healthy.”