Food & Drink

Dining in Seattle – Back to the Table

The growth of Seattle's Indigenous food space reclaims the origins of North American cuisine

By Stefanie Ellis April 14, 2023

Off the Rez is Seattle’s oldest Indigenous restaurant

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

At Seattle’s newest Indigenous-owned restaurant, ʔálʔal Café (the Lushootseed word means
“home” and is pronounced “all-all”), diners can enjoy dishes from tribal nations across the United States.

There’s wild rice from the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota; chocolate from the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma; maple sugar and syrup from the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine; blue corn from the Navajo Nation (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah) and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (Colorado and Utah); and bison from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.

Johnson’s menu focuses on precolonial ingredients, like bison barbacoa (Spanish for barbecue) tacos; wojape (a Dakota berry sauce) parfait with rotating flavors like lavender and huckleberry; blue cornmeal with juniper ash and wojape; and maple wild rice coffee cake, which has wild rice in the streusel, blended as a flour in the batter, and flecked on top.

There’s also a Three Sisters grain bowl with rabbit stew. A staple in Indigenous cuisine, the Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash — are named as such because, when planted together, they nourish one another in different ways, like family. Johnson says that rabbit remains a vital food source for Indigenous people.

 

Talking Cedar is the first tribal distillery in the U.S.

Photo by Kayla Joy Creative

“A deep part of Indigenous values is sharing and teaching, and our aim is to reclaim and reintroduce traditional Indigenous foods to the community,” says Johnson, who adds that his parents — who met while working in the same restaurant — instilled a love of food in him that has grown over time. “Indigenous peoples are the past, present, and future stewards of this land. By increasing Indigenous representation within the food industry, we hope to increase visibility and acceptance of Indigenous foods and culture.”

“Indigenous peoples are the past, present, and future stewards of this land. By increasing Indigenous representation within the food industry, we hope to increase visibility and acceptance of Indigenous foods and culture.”

Here’s a look at several personalities and businesses shaping the Indigenous food scene across Washington state.

Johnson serves local salmon from Quinault Pride Seafood, run by the Quinault Indian Nation, and coffee from Kamilche-based Salish Grounds, run by two sisters in the traditional territory of the Coast Salish Squaxin Island people.

He also speaks highly of Jason Vickers, a member of the Nipmuc Nation and innovations director at the Unkitawa Innovations Project. He’s doing “some cool stuff, like a buffalo harvest out in Spokane, which he brought back to Seattle, where close to 60 people processed it for a big community meal.”

Talking Cedar in Rochester is a 35,000-square-foot craft brewery, taproom, restaurant, and distillery owned by Chehalis Tribal Enterprises, making it the first tribal-owned distillery in the U.S. and the first distillery allowed in Indian country since 1834. The Chehalis Tribe and Heritage Distilling Co. (HDC) joined forces to lobby Congress in 2018 in order to repeal an Andrew Jackson-era statute that banned the making of alcohol on tribal land. Talking Cedar produces whisky, gin, vodka, and rum under license for HDC.

Seattle’s first Native food truck and longest-running Indigenous restaurant, Off the Rez, opened in 2011. In 2019, owners Mark McConnell, who is from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, and partner Cecilia Rikard expanded to a brick-and-mortar location inside the University of Washington’s Burke Museum (the duo also own Seattle pizza stalwart, Via Tribunali, formerly owned by Mark’s brother, Mike).

You’ll find wild rice bowls with braised bison, sweet potato salad, quinoa salad with corn and squash succotash, and fry bread with rotating toppings.

The Burke actually reached out to McConnell and Rikard, who had spent six months searching for the right physical location.

“Sharing Native food in a museum that showcases Native history in Washington made perfect sense,” says Rikard, adding that Off the Rez won the contract after a months-long competition with other food businesses. “It really is a fantastic fit.”

When Off the Rez launched, McConnell says many diners were unfamiliar with Native food — even if they knew about fry bread, a longtime staple of powwows and family dinners. He urges those interested in learning about Indigenous culture to try foods they’re unfamiliar with — such as bison or elk — and to check out cultural events such as the Seafair Indian Days Powwow in July or to visit the Burke.

“Part of the reason we wanted to start Off the Rez was because I often found myself craving the food I grew up with, but having a very hard time finding it,” he says, adding that Indigenous entrepreneurs would benefit from classes or programs specific to the restaurant and business world.

“Indigenous people have been making their food their own way at home, on tribal land and powwows for many, many years without directives about how it’s done. Changing the ways you or your family have done something isn’t easy, and changing it for the restaurant world can be a major challenge.”

Chef Jeremy Thunderbird’s Native Soul offers Native American-inspired soul food at pop-ups and events across the city, including Lumen Field. He offers comfort-focused dishes such as smoked salmon chowder, Native wild rice medley, blueberry pine nut salad, bourbon-glazed smoked salmon, curry chicken fry bread tacos, and smoked salmon mac ’n’ cheese.

 

ʔálʔal Café serves cuisine from tribal nations across the country.

Photo by Mel Ponder

Thunderbird says the men in his family did a lot of the cooking growing up. His father, a Squamish Indian, a First Nation of Vancouver, B.C., was a “really good cook.” His grandfather was a chef. His mother, who is Ohlone and Chumash, has 12 brothers and sisters. “I watched them do a lot of cooking.”

For a long time he was a hobby chef, cooking for himself and posting pictures on Instagram. He remembers friends telling him they’d buy his food, but he never took it seriously. But when his sales job at AT&T abruptly ended, he decided to try something different.

He began posting on social media that he was selling a particular meal that diners could pick up from his home. This led to popups from his kitchen window with people lined up down the block, just as they would at any in-demand restaurant.

After the unexpected success of his nontraditional business model, he began catering small parties and events. Now in his fifth year in business, he’s proof that all anyone needs is a chance.

“There are a lot of good chefs in Seattle,” he says, “so you have to work on what makes you different.”

Thunderbird’s cooking frequently showcases barbecue. He smokes his own salmon using a blend of wood over the more traditionally used cedar. As a guest recently on the Seattle-based The UpNUp podcast, Thunderbird discussed how the lack of Native American history taught in school launched him on a path of discovery that taught him about the true origins of his cooking style.

“Barbecue started off as a Native American technique for cooking, and slowly trickled into slaves who cooked for their masters,” Thunderbird says. “Even the word barbacoa is a Native American word for roasted meat. Food really is a history book.”

Other options: Find locally-sourced seafood from purveyors such as Native Candy (Yakama and Caddo tribes); Jamestown Seafood (Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe); Suquamish Seafoods (Suquamish Tribe); and Salish Seafoods (Squaxin Island Tribe).

And, for a Survivor-style, forage-based culinary competition, tune into Hulu’s new Chefs vs. Wild series, featuring cojudge and Washington resident Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, who is a Native nutrition educator specializing in local and traditional foods.

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