One of the tricky things about visiting Washington, DC with kids is finding good places to eat when you’re at the Smithsonian or just hanging out on the National Mall. The immediate options tend toward the food cart pretzels or cafeteria food. And all that museum walking can lead to lots of whining or even outright rebellion when you decide head offsite into some of the interesting options that lie farther afield off in say, Chinatown or the Eastern Market area. So I was intrigued when I posted a plea for suggestions on Twitter and kept getting the same response – try the cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Yes, this is a cafeteria – you pick up a tray and walk around to select your food. But I’ve never seen options quite like this. The Mitsitam Café offers visitors to the museum a chance to try dishes that are indigenous to the Americas. The stations are broken up according to region, from the Northwest Coast down to South America. It is a little bewildering and part of the pleasure for me was watching the lunch crowd make their choices. Everyone, adult and child alike, wandered around peering at the food, trying to figure out what it was. Although names are posted, there aren’t descriptions included and frankly, you can’t always tell by looking. The entire enterprise can feel a bit like a mystery and the staff, clearly tired of perennial questions (and perhaps a bit smug in the fact that they know and we don’t?) is not necessarily forthcoming about what each item includes.
The best approach here (unless you have allergies or dietary restrictions) is simply to plunge in with abandon. There are kids meals available if your child simply must
have chicken nuggets, but we stayed away and let the boys pick what looked appealing. Teddy went for a fry bread grilled cheese and green apple soup from the Northern Woodlands menu. The soup was the only thumbs down among all our orders, but the fry bread was delicious.
Tommy was more intrigued by Mesoamerica and ordered corn tacos filled with a chicken, peanut, and red chili mole that was to die for.
Matt and I headed for South America. He ordered aji de cabro or pulled goat in a red wine and chili sauce from Chile with a side of papas ala arequipena or potatoes and cheese from Peru (but suitable for a Wisconsin boy, don’t you think?).
And me? I bellied up to the bar and tried to cajole the woman serving food to tell me what the names of the dishes meant to no avail. She was either coy or crabby so I ended up with a plate of pupusa de chicharrón that was served with a topping of a cabbage and carrot slaw and a side of heart of palm salad. I was perfectly happy not to really know what I was munching on.
It turns out that a pupusa is a traditional Salvadoran dish made of corn meal, cheese, and finely ground pork (not pork rinds as I first mistakenly assumed). It was divine.
Mitsitam means “let’s eat” in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples and that’s what we did. It was lots of fun and completely different. One word of warning though: It’s not a cheap lunch. But since the museum is completely free, why not splurge a little? I can’t think of a more delicious way to learn about native cultures than this.
I share this yummy cultural exchange as part of Wanderfood Wednesday. Be sure to check out the equally delicious posts to be found there.