ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - When the doors flung open at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center restaurant, a tourist rushed in and exclaimed, "I've driven all the way from Minnesota for this food!"
Tourists, however, aren't the only ones driving cross-country for the Tiwa tacos, blue corn enchiladas, bread pudding and new line of low-carb, mouth-watering entrees at the Pueblo Harvest Cafe.
Burt Wilson, Navajo head cook and assistant manager, said he learned to cook in Gallup, N.M. "They wanted their mutton and blue corn meal mush," Wilson said of the Navajo elderly in the nursing homes where he learned his craft.
"But I didn't learn how to make fry bread until I got here. It's not as easy as it looks."
Now, he's dishing up the in-demand Tiwa taco. It's the Tiwa version of an Indian taco, beginning with one-quarter piece of fry bread topped with beans and the fixings - pinto beans, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and grated cheese. Then, it's topped with another quarter piece of fry bread.
"That's what we call a Tiwa taco."
The secret of the Tiwa taco is in the maker of the fry bread dough, Acoma Pueblo's Zelda Chaplin. She has the touch. Serious fry bread eaters ask for her by name. "We let Zelda make the dough. Some people come in and ask, 'Is Zelda here today?'" Wilson said.
Blue corn enchiladas and the Navajo favorite mutton stew are the latest additions to the menu.
As for mutton stew, Wilson said, "It's a little more popular than I thought it would be."
Although the bread pudding is prized, when the platters and posole bowls are finished, Wilson said, "Not a lot of people go for desserts because they feel so full when they leave here." Wrapped individually are Pueblo sweets - cinnamon sugar cookies known as biscochitos and prune pies - for visitors to take home.
The big news at the cultural center is the low-carb menu, with the most delicious red and green chile dishes transformed with Wilson's low carbohydrate wizardry. "The only thing we do is make a few changes."
The savory chile stews are prepared with slight variations. Red chile is prepared by omitting flour as the thickener and instead, preparing a condensed-version of red chile. Omitting cornstarch as the thickener creates low carb green chile.
"We have people saying, 'We don't want any low-carb chile - we don't want anyone messing with our chile; but you can't really taste the difference."
Green chile chicken enchiladas made with low carb tortillas have only 3.4 carbs and 233 calories. There's also low carb carne adovada, that's pork marinated in red chile, and turkey wraps and fajita wraps.
Taz's tortilla burger is named after the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's marketing director Tazbah McCullah, former general manager of the Navajo Nation's KTNN radio. A low-carb tortilla replaces the high-carb bun.
Jemez enchilada on the low carb menu has only 7.8 carbs and 392 calories. Wilson begins with low carb tortillas dipped in red chile, and then bakes the enchiladas with saut?ed onions and cheddar cheese.
An amazing low-carb note is included on the new menu, which came out in February, there's 0 carbs in a 2-ounce serving of green or red chile, New Mexico favorites that grow throughout the state.
"These are extremely flavorful, we have a lot of people excited about it," Wilson said of the red and green chile dishes. Along with blue corn enchiladas, corn fries are in demand. Corn fries are like French fries, but made with the Pueblo and Navajo favorite: corn.
Wilson, 31, grew up in Gallup. "We ate a lot of commodity cheese and peanut butter, a lot of bologna, hot dogs and beans." Still, there were trips home to his grandfather's home on Zuni Pueblo for traditional food. "Our family always butchered."
These days, however, the single chef said he eats a lot of fast food burgers when he's away from the restaurant kitchen. At home, he likes to grill. "I like to cook simple and grill steaks or chicken outside. I'm a real big meat eater."
After a stint in the Navy, Wilson said he didn't see cooking on his horizon. "I never thought I'd wind up cooking. But it's an experience, it's hard at times and a lot of work, but the rewards are gratifying."
Alongside Wilson in the kitchen is Acoma Pueblo's Norman Torivio. What's the most popular dish? "Just about everything. My sisters and cousins say they like the squash, my mom likes the red chile." The squash he mentioned is perfectly steamed and seasoned zucchini squash, another Pueblo favorite.
However, it's the Tiwa taco that gets Torivio's final vote as the most popular dish here.
In the restaurant decorated with Native designs, visitors savor breakfast burritos and posole with green chile for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They come from as far away as New York and California, and from as close by as Taos and Santa Fe.
"We get lots of people from Russia, Germany, England, France and Japan. The Japanese say it's really a big change." Although tourism was on the decline over the past three years, Wilson said travelers are once again taking to the open road.
"We're busier now than I thought we would be." With banquet space available at the cultural center and the new Bureau of Indian Affairs office building being completed in view, Wilson points out that his staff is ready to serve crowds.
After two and one-half years of creating magic in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's kitchen, Wilson said the reward comes in the form of the praise he receives from guests. "Just hearing, 'Your food is great and your hard work is appreciated,'" he said makes it worth it.
"I never thought of being in this field, but I don't think I would like to be anything else."
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, open seven days a week at 2401 12th St. NW, offers a museum, gift shop, smoke shop, weekend traditional dances and the Institute for Pueblo Indian Studies. The cultural center is owned and operated by the 19 New Mexico pueblos. For more information, call (505) 843-7270 or (800) 766-4405.