Taste-Testing Indigenous Foods at Tocabe

Photo by Andi Murphy - Lunch at Tocabe, An American Indian Eatery in Denver is a tasty experience.

Andi Murphy

The American Indian Eatery is Native-owned and supports other Native-owned businesses

Need indigenous flavors in a fast-casual eatery in Denver? Tocabe is your best best bet (probably your only bet). The original location (3536 W. 44th Ave.) is situated in the northern part of Denver in a laid back neighborhood just a few minute’s drive from downtown.

Upon walking in, Tocabe has a busy feel to it. Music is playing, voices are echoing off the walls and the staff look busy behind the counter. Natural light floods the dining room that’s a mix of sandy and midnight colors and some stainless steel. For me, that kind of atmosphere is welcoming and it adds just a little bit of excitement to the food to come.

It’s a counter-serve style restaurant. You get to pick your base (either a frybread to make a frybread taco, a salad or nachos), a meat (including ground beef and bison, chicken and braised and shredded bison) and then toppings like corn, tomatoes and a mix of onions, cilantro and seeds. It’s like an Indigenous Chipotle.

Many of the ingredients come from our own Native communities like Ramona Farms tepary beans and wheat berries, Bow & Arrow corn and Séka Hills olive oil and elderberry balsamic vinegar.

Over the months and years they’ve been open, Tocabe has changed up the menu, added ingredients and took some dishes off. As they get ready to open up a third location, it’s a good time for a visit, right?

I started with some bison ribs slathered in homemade blueberry barbecue sauce ($13).

I’ve only ever had ground bison and about a ton of bison burgers before and my experience has always been that they were a little dry with mild to no gamey flavor. It’s amazing how tender and moist the ribs were. They’re cured for a day and braised in a homemade stock. Then they’re finished on the grill with barbecue sauce. All that translated into a warm, peppery flavor that allowed all the great flavors of the red meat through, without tasting gamey at all.

The blueberry barbecue sauce was on point and I took some leftovers home. It gave a nice sweetness to the meat and helped balance out some of the fat on the rib, which, I think, a little bit of meat fat is simply a blessing to the palate.

The ribs are a separate item on the menu and not part of the assembly line.

Next, I went for a wild rice salad, which is called a posu bowl, and it’s one of the healthier options offered at Tocabe. Adding a bunch of ingredients kind of competes with the nutty flavors of the wild rice, which is from Red Lake Nation Foods, but that just means each fork full has something different to offer. I added a spicy salsa that sort of woke everything up and made the fresher flavors pop. I enjoyed this dish a lot.

You can’t see the braised shredded bison, but it’s under the salsa and corn, and it’s pretty delicious. It has all the smokey and peppery flavors of the ribs, but it’s a little easier to scoop up into your mouth.

I also had to try the frybread. This is a difficult one to talk about because all of our Indian grandmothers, moms and aunts can make the best frybread in their respective Indian nations, right? And that makes us kind of biased. So, I’m just going to say that as a member of the Navajo Nation, this Osage-style frybread was delicious. It was a little sweet, but savory; not crunchy or too thick. Pilling it with ground beef and all the Indian taco fixings, including that spicy salsa, was a classic treat. I’ve never met an Indian taco I didn’t like and this one didn’t disappoint.

With all that said and eaten, I had to finish my visit with some sweets. I got a wojapi cup ($3.50) and an order of frybread nuggets ($2.95).

For someone who’s never had wojapi before, I didn’t know wojapi should be on my bucket list, but I’m glad I crossed it off. This berry pudding/mashed berries/berry sauce—however you want to translate it, is a great way to end a meal. It’s sweet and fresh without being too sweet. I was sad that I was too full to finish it all, but I realize I need to learn how to make it at home or find a place that makes it here in Albuquerque.

The frybread nuggets, or bite-size frybread tossed in powdered sugar, are a cool concept. They had all the simple flavors of a fried bread pastry and I couldn’t help but think they’d be really good in the morning with some coffee.

Eating at Tocabe was a pretty cool experience for me and knowing that it’s a Native-owned business that supports other Native-owned businesses makes it even more special. So if you’re going to travel a few hundred miles to eat at Tocabe, make sure you get your fill. It’s like visiting grandma, you don’t leave hungry.

The second Tocabe location is at 8181 E. Arapahoe Road, also in Denver. The crew are working on opening a third location in Denver.