A taste of nations

Venison and frogs legs are certainly not items one would expect to dine on during a casual lunch out at a museum. So grabbing something to eat at the National Museum of the American Indian can provide an interesting alternative to the usual food court fare.

 The Mitsitam Native Foods Café, located on the first floor of the museum, is designed to give visitors a culinary lesson in “indigenous cuisines of the Americas and to explore the history of Native foods,” according to the Smithsonian Institution.

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“Mitsitam” means “Let’s eat!” in the native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples, and the café is divided into five sections, with each station including food and cooking techniques found in different regions of the Western Hemisphere, from the Northern Woodlands to South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains.

 Walking into the café can be a little confusing. I suggest printing out the menu from the café website beforehand to get an idea of what it offers. The selection changes quarterly, so new things will pop up.

Perhaps the best approach to eating at the Mitsitam café is to “region-hop.” If you sample a few things from the various stations, you will take yourself on a virtual food tour during lunch break.

But be forewarned: That strategy can be pricey. While there is a discount for federal employees, it is easy to rack up a $20 lunch without knowing it.

 Starting at the Northwest Coast station, you will find a cedar-plank fire-roasted salmon as well as a grilled venison flank steak. The venison has a woodsy, smoky flavor and was cooked perfectly to order, making it a good place to try deer for the first time. The rosemary wild cherry chutney offers a sweet complement to the salty seasoning on the steak. It did not taste gamey, as one might expect, but it is certainly not a beef flank steak.

 As for the salmon, it is cooked against a piece of cedar suspended over a fire pit in the kitchen behind the station. This gives it a drier outer layer, but the meaty part underneath has a pleasing fire flavor. That said, the venison is the more novel and enjoyable main-dish choice in this region. While it may be tempting to get the sampler at this station to try both entrees and a few side dishes, you can easily peruse the station’s selection to mix and match your own combination.

 One side dish to look out for is the sea bean, walnut, apple and radish salad. The walnut and the apples are a pleasing combination, but the radish contributes a contrasting flavor that takes some getting used to.

 Around the corner from the rest of the stations, making it easy to miss, is the Northern Woodlands area. Don’t skip its wild rice and watercress salad. It’s akin to a rice-based coleslaw, full of crunchy pumpkin seeds and cherries. The robust flavors combine well, and the dish’s various ingredients equal texturally adventurous experience. This salad goes well with the venison from across the room.

 
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The Northern Woodlands also offers frog legs. They are cornmeal-crusted and deep-fried, which gives them a lopsided batter-to-meat ratio. They look like county fair corn dogs at first glance, but if you peel away some of the batter, you will more clearly see the meat. The cliché “tastes like chicken” applies somewhat here, although the taste is that of a “fishier” chicken, if that’s possible. There is a surprising amount of meat on the legs (making me wonder about the size of the frog), and while two come per order, it is not something to make an entire meal out of. It is fun to order — you can say you ate frog legs for lunch — but it’s not a must-have.

The Great Plains station usually has the longest line because it offers the chicken tender-and-fries meal for the less adventurous. But it also includes the buffalo burger and traditional “fry bread.” It would be easy to associate the fry bread with a carnival funnel cake or elephant ear, but it is nowhere near as greasy as the state-fair staples, and it has a heartier, denser texture. It comes covered in powdered sugar, so beware of getting white dust all over dark work clothes if you’re stopping in during the day. The wild berry compote is a good add-on when ordering the bread. It is a little thinner than a normal berry jam or jelly but adds a nice, fruity flavor to the bread.

 This station also offers the “Indian taco,” which is fry bread topped with buffalo chili on pickled chilies, Pinto beans, lettuce, tomato, and shredded cheese. The station also sells the buffalo chili by the bowl.

 The South American station has Peruvian chicken, fried yucca and tamales, but nothing here is better than the takeout places that dot the District and its suburbs.

 The chilled avocado-cilantro soup was like a thinner guacamole dip, though it’s still thick for a soup. It has a spicy jalapeño kick.

 The Meso American station has pulled pork empanadas but is really a glorified build-your-own-taco bar with different tortilla chips. It does offer a corn on the cob covered in a mayonnaise-type sauce and sprinkled with seasonings.

 The café would be a good spot to meet visitors during the day or a place to try some new things all at once. Regardless of what food you choose, try to get a seat near the windows of the café’s seating area. The light-filled dining room gives a good view of the National Mall, including a water feature that runs along the side of the restaurant.