A contemporary fast, casual eatery features Native dishes and decor

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DENVER – If there’s such a thing as guilt-free frybread, a recently opened restaurant may have the recipe for it.

Instead of the old-style vegetable lard that can make frybread a dieter’s nightmare, the owner/chef at Tocabe, an American Indian eatery, insists that his cooking oil – a blended mixture of canola and corn oils – has zero trans-fats and is a healthy alternative.

And the frybread cooked in the oil is light, fluffy and delicious, the recipe Ben Jacobs, 26, attributes to his Osage grandmother from Oklahoma.

Although Jacobs grew up in Denver, he stresses his roots in the Osage Nation, whose language gave his restaurant the name Tocabe – “blue” – and, with other Native influences, a lot of the décor, which incorporates sage green, a textured wall covering reminiscent of prairie grass, cloud-like ceiling fixtures, tipi lights and, most strikingly, three hands, the restaurant’s logo, that represent the three villages of the Osage.

“It’s not that we have dream catchers everywhere or buffalo heads on the walls. It’s more universal,” he said. The soundtrack for background music is not solely flute music, but includes contemporary Native works.

 

Three hands symbolizing the three villages of the Osage Nation adorn the walls of Tocabe, an American Indian eatery, recently opened in Denver, Colo. by Ben Jacobs, who drew on his Osage ancestry for decor ideas and Native-themed recipes.

Mindful of the wider indigenous context, the hands logo displayed on one wall do not show wrists or they could signify a less-than-pleasant historical meaning – the severed hands of enemies – rather than extended hand of friendship, he said.

Tocabe offers a wide choice of meats for Indian tacos – buffalo, shredded beef or chicken breast, as well as ground beef.

The menu also features Little Osage Pizza and dessert tacos that can be topped with hot apples and cherries as well as powdered sugar or honey. The wojapi (thickened berry pudding) he plans to include on the menu will have to pass a strict Native taste test, he said.

“I liked the idea of bringing Native food into the 21st century in a contemporary version, a little more upscale.”

Clientele and staff are about half Native and half non-Native, and the gentrifying locale attracts a varied group of customers, including people from the immediate neighborhood and afar, all constituting a “nice mix” who like the assembly-line serving style because they can see the freshness of the ingredients, the owner said.

Jacobs didn’t study culinary arts (although one of his staff did) and he majored in history at the University of Denver. But, his parents operated a similar restaurant years ago in downtown Denver, he recalls playing there as a child. He researched fast, casual Native restaurants and found about 20 nationwide, but he is not sure how many are still open, or how accurate his count was in the first place.

Tocabe is a 13-hour a day job, he said. On a recent Saturday, a contingent from a state historical society program was scheduled to eat there as part of a series on Native foods.

Tocabe’s future may include an outdoor patio and additional locations. But if it ever became a franchise, Jacobs said he’d want franchisees to be Native people who incorporated their own tribal themes into the restaurants.