Unlike the last featured destination for Off the Beaten Turf, this installment was swarming with tourists when we made a post-lunchtime trip. But Mitsitam Cafe is one of very few places on the Mall where you can get fresh, novel, tasty food while strolling from museum to museum.
The National Mall is ripe with art, historical artifacts and educational wonders, but sadly devoid of many satisfying culinary options. After spending a few hours there, you inevitably succumb to hunger and end up eating one of the joyless offerings from a typical museum cafeteria, or maybe just a hot dog. At The Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe, you can feast on ceviche, blue cornbread and a fiddle-head fern salad for an experience that’s as tasty as a meal in a good DC restaurant (and sometimes as expensive).
Opened in 2004 to supplement the museum experience, Mitsitam Cafe was designed to highlight indigenous foods from around the Americas. It’s set up like a cafeteria, with trays to hold and lines to stand in, but the offerings are often restaurant quality; in fact, it’s Zagat rated. Divided into five areas — Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Meso American and the Great Plains — the chefs manipulate local ingredients from each region into authentic dishes. The menu changes with the seasons, and the number of offerings can be staggering: if you go there during a busy season, you’ll find overwhelmed tourists standing paralyzed by the number of options. Each region has a designated area along the periphery, with several main dishes, side dishes, salads and breads, and there are desserts stacked on a center island.
The local ingredients are perhaps the biggest draw. In a world full of chocolate and wine, it’s nice to be reminded of the days when residents of the Western hemisphere had to create diverse meals with only native ingredients. Corn, buffalo, juniper berries, cherries, yams, salmon and quinoa fill the menu.
When UrbanTurf stopped by, some of the standout dishes were snapping turtle soup, bacalao ala vizcana (a South American soup), salmon cakes and smoked venison. Years ago, I had a creamy chicken soup from the South American region that I still think about; maybe it’ll show up again one of these days.
For those seeking something less exotic, the Meso American station had tacos, salsa and guacamole, while the Northwest Coast featured cedar planked fire-roasted salmon. Burger fans always line up for the buffalo burgers, and kids can eat fry bread grilled cheese (they also have chicken fingers and french fries, just in case).
The meal will run you more than a couple hot dogs at a stand on the Mall. A main dish with two sides will almost certainly cost you in the $20 range, and if you want to enjoy some tamarind agua fresco with your meal and a rhubarb cobbler for dessert, you will be treating yourself to a very expensive lunch. But Mitsitam offers an educational culinary experience to supplement the Smithsonian museums, and has a few memorable offerings that linger in your mind. If you haven’t been there, it’s worth a visit. Maybe just not during high-tourist season.