Dining

Deep-Fried Memories

Tocabe's American Indian cuisine prompts a fleeting sense of nostalgia.

March 2010

Growing up in a small town left me with more than a few memories of the annual county fair: lining up for spinning rides, winning countless stuffed animals, and sidling up for hot funnel cakes lost under mounds of powdered sugar.

These memories came flooding back when I had my first bite of fry bread at Tocabe. Ben Jacobs, 26, and Matt Chandra, 27—both University of Denver alumni—opened the American Indian-themed, fast-casual spot in December 2008. The recipes—sweet-corn soup, nachos, and heaping fry-bread tacos that you can order flat, calzonelike, or topped with warm fruit and cinnamon for dessert—are based on Chandra and Jacobs' family recipes.

The format is familiar: a Chipotle-style counter with choose-your-own toppings and a small, inexpensive menu (nothing costs more than $8). After ordering an American Indian taco with ground buffalo, I was helped through all the toppings: black, kidney, or pinto beans, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, onions, and a choice of salsas. (I recommend the sweet-corn version, which adds tang and crunch.) All my selections were tossed onto a plate and passed to the kitchen.

What emerged was a golden-brown, flash-fried piece of sopaipillalike dough covered in a heap of toppings and finished with a swirling cap of sour cream and Ancho chile sauce. The first taste was everything I'd hoped for: crunchy and soft, sweet and savory. In between bites, I recalled those childhood fairs, but this was far more gratifying.

Through Tocabe, Jacobs and Chandra have created a meal that signifies more than the exchange of dollars for food. They've taken the tragic history of fry bread—Navajos were driven from their land in the 1800s, and their meager rations included the ingredients that became the staple—and spun it into something entirely new. Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery, 3536 W. 44th Ave., 720-524-8282, www.tocabe.com.