The last few years have seen the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC) transform into one of the foremost dining hubs in the city.
The area across the street from IPCC now hosts four restaurants, ranging from Laguna Burger and its famous green chile cheeseburgers, to the vegan diner Itality from Tina Archuleta of Jemez Pueblo.
IPCC’s flagship restaurant, Indian Pueblo Kitchen, has also undergone a transformation. Beyond serving food to hungry tourists, the kitchen provides training and access to a commercial kitchen and greenhouse for future Native chefs.
Chef Davida Becenti hails from the Aztec/Farmington area and is of Diné (Navajo) and Polynesian descent. She is part of a vanguard of Native chefs gaining recognition and acclaim in the Southwest. This year’s James Beard semifinalists for Best Chef Southwest include two Native chefs: Justin Pioche (Diné) from the Farmington area, and Nephi Craig (Apache/Diné) of Café Gozhóó in Whiteriver, Arizona, near the New Mexico border. These chefs enrich our dining scene with their keen appreciation of Indigenous history and traditions.
Indian Pueblo Kitchen looks much the same as it did at my last visit a few years ago when it was called Pueblo Harvest. The menu is accessible and inexpensive, with almost everything costing less than $15. There are free coffee refills – something surely appreciated by the travelers on nearby I-40 who stop here to fuel up on their way to distant destinations. Many such travelers crowded the semicircular dining room looking out on 12th Street during a recent lunch hour.
When my friend and I approached the check-in stand just before noon, the host was clearly frazzled by the growing crowd waiting for a table. By the time we were seated, the wait had climbed to 25 minutes.
Chef Becenti’s menu carries familiar items with Native touches like fry bread with the burger, and squash in a dish of enchiladas. There’s a focus on locally-sourced ingredients and healthy options, as in a breakfast dish of Native Superfoods Waffles ($12). Two oblong blue corn waffles arrived enriched with quinoa, amaranth, currants, piñon nuts, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Despite all the add-ons, the waffles were light, not dense, and had a compelling nutty flavor. For $3 more, you can add turkey sausage, bacon or Spam. I had the turkey sausage, served as two discs about the size of beer coasters. Turkey sausage can be very dry, but these were juicy with a spiciness that made a good match for the accompanying maple syrup.
The same assortment of superfoods livens up the Atole ($10), Indian Pueblo Kitchen’s version of a masa-based beverage of Mexican origin. The big bowl of lumpy blue corn porridge was topped with the nuts, seeds and grains, and sweetened with berries. It’s everything you want in a breakfast: carbs, protein and the good kind of fat that comes from nuts.
A bowl of Elk Chili ($10) stood out among New Mexican favorites like an Indian Taco ($14) and Blue Corn Enchiladas ($13). Under a pile of diced onions, the hefty chunks of ground elk were juicy and tender and picked up considerable heat from the red chile-based broth. Two moist, slightly sweet blue corn muffins were on hand to temper the chile’s heat. The dish is also available in a smaller serving for $8.
Lunch options include a handful of salads and sandwiches. A pile of mixed greens topped with heirloom tomatoes, rainbow carrots and candied pumpkin seeds, the Harvest Salad ($8) provided a good mix of textures, even if the plate it was served on was too small.
The sandwich menu features a burger and three sandwiches for $13 to $17. The addition of roasted turkey to Pueblo Kitchen’s version of the Monte Cristo ($15), the classic French toast-meets-ham sandwich, made it like a decadent version of a club sandwich. It had a good balance between the lunch meats and cheeses and the thick slabs of dense, white Pueblo oven bread. A spread of red chile-infused raspberry preserves under the sandwich was a nice touch.
There are a few gluten-free options like the blue corn enchiladas. Gluten-free buns and bread are available.
In contrast to the harried host, our server was friendly and efficient even as she covered a wide swath of the dining room. When I had to flag her down to pay the check, she was quite apologetic and gave us a couple of Pueblo Cookies for free. The thick cookies were pretty dry, but the gesture was still appreciated.
The latest iteration of Indian Pueblo Kitchen offers a gentle introduction to the Native cuisine of New Mexico at reasonable prices. Its broader mission to train the next generation of Native chefs is one worth supporting.