Change is afoot at Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, the striking complex of stucco buildings on 12th NW that’s operated by the 19 pueblos of New Mexico. Two new restaurants – Laguna Burger and Sixty-Six Acres – are up and running, and a business incubator will break ground next year.
Change has also come to Pueblo Harvest, the restaurant on the north side of the complex. Last year, Brent Moore, Pueblo Harvest’s former sous chef, was named executive chef. “Café” has been dropped from the name, and the place has a new slogan: Native Sourced, Pueblo Inspired.
The menu divides food into categories based loosely on the origins of their ingredients. So-called pre-contact selections are restricted to ingredients native to the area before European colonization. That means bison, elk and mutton instead of beef and chicken, and the ancient grain amaranth instead of wheat.
A pre-contact appetizer of amaranth and corn fritters ($13) sounds promising but is compromised by an uninspiring presentation. Three lumpish spheres fried to a chestnut brown are served with a smattering of fermented black beans over a meager streak of avocado crema. The shell of the fritters has a nice crunch and a nutty flavor, while the inside is so dense it is difficult to swallow.
Pueblo Harvest’s mutton stew ($5.50 for a cup) offers a gentle introduction to the much-maligned meat of mature sheep. The broth and potatoes ameliorate the gamey flavor of the tender, fatty mutton chunks, and an excellent blue corn muffin serves as a good chaser.
Entrées take the wheat flour, beef and other ingredients that came with European settlers and give them a Native spin. In the Tewa taco ($13), familiar taco ingredients such as shredded cheese, onions and ground beef are piled onto a plate-sized piece of fry bread. It’s not particularly artful, but the exceptional fry bread and piquant red chile sauce elevate it to one of the stars of the menu.
Guests in our party spoke highly of the bison frites ($16), a smallish wedge of grilled bison flank steak cooked medium-rare and paired with tart, sweet wojapi, a Native American berry sauce. The green chile on the blue corn enchiladas ($12) won approval, as did the bison burger ($17) and its brioche bun, which held up to the juicy half-pound patty.
Among the half-dozen desserts is the same wojapi that came with flank steak, only this time showing up in a cast-iron skillet with maple-flavored pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and pecan crumble ($12). It’s a lot – perhaps too much – of a good thing. An amaranth flour cake ($8) is served in two pieces that resemble muffin tops. More of the excellent stewed apricots and candied pepitas would have helped cut the cake’s density. It’s a reminder that the dishes here have good components, even if the balance of them is sometimes off.
The restaurant does not take reservations, so you can expect a wait during busy times. Fortunately, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center has plenty to occupy your attention. On a recent Sunday, Indian dancers performed in the semicircular courtyard and the gift shop displayed the seasonal coffee cup designs from Native artists that will most likely be sold out by the time you remember to order them.
Our server was friendly and knew the menu well, but the meal’s pace was on the slow side.
Despite the up-and-down dining experience. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Pueblo Harvest. It’s a vital part of Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, helping to keep it anchored to its roots as it enters an era of dramatic change.