Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tocabe and the Frybread Taco

Denver, CO is for some reason or other a hub for the fast-causal restaurant industry. And from burgers to noodles to subs to falafel, the undisputed king of this foothill monarchy is that ubiquitous foil-wrapped place that just about everyone likes. Even those overly-serious "foodie" types and ironic hipsters who don't like to admit they like something so mass-produced and mainstream-- yes, even they like it. And while it is not at the top of my list, what isn't to like about a Mission-style burrito, even if it is a little bland?

It is no surprise then, that this Denver-based success story has inspired a slew of other entrepreneurs, some who have copied the model more closely than others, and how can you blame them? Who wouldn't want to roll around in crisp $100 bills or jump into piles of gold coins ala Scrooge McDuck as the result of a booming capitalist empire with ridiculous profit margins and brilliant strategic marketing?

So I wasn't surprised (nor critical) when I walked into Denver's Tocabe a couple weeks back and did a double-take thinking a Chipotle had gone in so fast they hadn't had time to switch the name on the outside of the building. But no, I had indeed found my way into the NW Denver fast-causal home of the Frybread, or Indian, Taco.

The Frybead Taco, instead of tortilla, has a base of puffy-- you guessed it-- frybread. Frybead if you have never had it, is a little like the New Mexican sopapilla-- fluffy, sweetened dough fired in oil. Made from refined sugar and white flour, it is far from what its inventors, the Navajo, originally dined on. No, Frybread is not a good representation of what this proud tribe consumed centuries ago, but rather represents the blending (oppression is a better word) of this Native American tribe (read more about the fascinating and complicated history of Frybread here) into a cruel new world order.

Whatever meaning frybread might mean to a Navajo living today, at Tocabe, it is about the celebration of this Native American dish. And as is the case with all fast-casual dining, you must wait in line patiently for your food, and make your way down a uncannily familiar looking assembly line of beans, rice, meats and salsas.

The Indian taco was certainly impressive-looking. This one was loaded down with chicken, pinto beans, a mild green salsa (supposed to be hot), and many other burrito-like fixings. It looked like it would be packed with a ton of flavor. It wasn't. It was severely under seasoned-- and not just the mild hot salsa-- everything from the beans to the chicken lacked flavor. I managed to eat it anyway (it is fried dough) but was a little disappointed. Only when I was mostly done and had some strands of stray frybread lying around did I get to appreciate the frybread itself. With a little spread of honey it was fantastic.


The stuffed fry bread was much better. I think that had to do with our choice of meat: the shredded bison. The shredded bison, unlike the chicken, was full of flavor and it stewed with all the other toppings inside this calzone-like creation.

Maybe even better than either frybread plate was the flavorful hominy salad pictured above. And a side of wonderful, earthy long-grained rice dish filled with dried cranberries and corn was probably my favorite plate of the night.

Tocabe is not a chain at this point, and I am not sure what plans this family-owned place has for expansion, if any. And while I think it was for the most part under flavored, it was packed with families the entire time I was there with a constant line of at least 10 people. So who am I to say? I am not not recommending Tocabe, and I do see how it is a nice place to bring the family for a quick meal, but when I think of adding fried dough to what otherwise is a burrito, I expect great things. Tocabe falls a little short of that.

Note: Apparently Tocabe has recently appeared on that one Food Network show with the spiky-haired dude that no one really likes. How refreshing to not have said fact advertised in every little corner of the restaurant--or at all. I had no idea until today. Thanks Tocabe!

TOCABE - An American Indian Eatery on Urbanspoon

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