An Indian taco made on frybread at the Thunderbird Restaurant. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com
An Indian taco made on frybread at the Thunderbird Restaurant. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

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You need to try frybread and Indian tacos. Here’s where to do that

September 21, 2017 12:00 PM

Beth Wilson loved frybread so much, she added it to the weekly specials menu at the restaurant she manages in Tacoma.

Rev. Irvin Porter of the Church of the Indian Fellowship saw frybread and Indian taco feeds as a way for church volunteers to raise money for its programs.

The Frybread Factory is a mobile restaurant that got its start at Firecracker Alley, the selling spot for tribal fireworks. The family-owned business has collected a following for its family frybread recipe and has expanded to two farmers markets. It has the broadest menu of frybread in the region.

Here are three ways to discover frybread and Indian tacos, which is a simple, tasty fried flatbread topped the way a Mexican taco typically would be made.

Frybread is topped with beans, beef, cheese and vegetables at the Church of the Indian Fellowship.
Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com
Church of the Indian Fellowship

Where: 2232 E. 28th St., Tacoma; 253-840-2533; goo.gl/Wu3vMa.

When: The next sale will be in October. Check the church’s Facebook page for sale dates. Sales are announced a few days or up to a week in advance.

You can smell the frybread before entering the back door into the church’s basement dining room. The Presbyterian church is located up a steep driveway up the hill from the Tacoma outpost of the Emerald Queen Casino (that’s different from the Fife location) at the entrance of the Puyallup Tribal Cemetery.

Inside the church’s kitchen, find Porter, his wife, Anne-Cecile Baer Porter, and a host of church volunteers bustling about. They work fast because they have to. It’s common for the church to sell out of frybread after a few hours.

The event usually starts just before lunchtime on select Fridays (usually no more than once a month). Their menu is simple: a piece of frybread, fresh and warm, or their own version of Indian tacos (Porter says most tribes have their own version, read below about that).

Porter said the church collects 100 percent of the profits from the frybread sales because volunteers contribute ingredients and labor.

The menu: Plain frybread ($3); Indian taco ($7); Indian taco combo meal with drink and dessert ($8).

The taco: A chewy, elastic base with delicious salty tones. Church members were generous with the toppings (have as many as you like). There was a smear of refried beans, ground beef with tangy taco seasoning, shredded cheddar, chunky-cut tomatoes, diced onions and rough-chopped iceberg, plus sour cream and salsa. I got the works. Delicious. I routinely check the church’s Facebook page for the next frybread sale because it’s that good.

The Frybread Factory loads frybread bites with chili, cheese, veggies and sour cream.
Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

The Frybread Factory

Where: Saturdays at the Puyallup Farmers Market through the end of the season, Oct. 14. Contact Frybread Factory at 253-651-2066 or goo.gl/n4avNa.

Farmers market: 319 S. Meridian, Puyallup; 253-840-2631. The market is 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday.

The Miles-Varbel family started selling their frybread at a stand on Waller Road and then at Firecracker Alley, the meeting place for tribal fireworks sales (they still serve there, too).

Their frybread is a closely guarded family recipe, said James Miles, who operates The Frybread Factory mobile restaurant with wife, Katie Miles, her sister, Alissa Varbel, and their mother, Lori Varbel. All are members of the Puyallup tribe.

Their frybread dishes got so popular, the family decided to take the stand and turn it into a mobile trailer, complete with deep fryers.

They’re at the end of their season now but will be selling at the Puyallup Farmers Market through the end of the season. Check their Facebook page for special events.

The menu: Frybread ($5), frybread bites ($5), strawberry frycake ($7), Indian taco ($7), frybread pizza ($7), fryburger with cheese ($7), frydog (beef Polish, $6).

The taco: A spicy bean-and-beef chili topped sliced pieces of frybread that came with the most delicious chewy resistance. The Indian taco was topped with shredded cheddar, salsa with a slight kick of heat, shredded iceberg lettuce, sour cream and black olives. It’s served in a big foil container about the size of a small pie.

The strawberry frycake: Built on frybread bites with diced sweetened strawberries and a fluffy tower of whipped cream from a can.

The Indian taco at the Thunderbird Restaurant is an every Wednesday special.
Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

Thunderbird Restaurant

Where: 7121 Waller Rd E., Tacoma; 253-536-3162; thunderbirdtrading.com/restaurant.

When: Every Wednesday on the specials menu.

Note: I detected a smoky scent filtering in from the adjacent cigar lounge (smoking is allowed, it’s on tribal property). Just an FYI in case that bothers you.

Thunderbird restaurant general manager Beth Wilson has a personal affinity for frybread. She put it on the menu as a sometimes special, but the requests for it became so frequent she started making frybread and Indian tacos as a special every Wednesday earlier this summer.

She’ll sometimes offer a frybread burger or a frybread corndog. She’ll also serve it as an accompaniment to soup. The every-Wednesday Indian tacos are the go-to for most diners.

The menu: Indian tacos, $6 each or two for $10. Frybread with cinnamon-sugar, $4.

The taco: Warm frybread with a sweet tinge and fluffy texture was piled tall with ground beef flavored with taco seasoning, shredded cheddar cheese, chopped tomatoes and a big halo of shredded iceberg. Sour cream and salsa on the side. One is a small meal, two is a feast. The option to add chili is available.

Tip: The restaurant sells packaged frybread mix for $5. It’s the same mix used to make the restaurant’s frybread.

ALSO TRY

It’s not a frybread taco, but Cooks Tavern in Tacoma serves frybread on its dinner menu. It’s topped with salmon, goat cheese, pickled onion, arugula and lemon citronette ($11). Find the restaurant at 3201 N. 26th St, Tacoma, 253-327-1777.

The Frybread Factory sells its frybread plain from its mobile trailer at farmers markets.
Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

A QUICK FRYBREAD PRIMER

Porter and Miles trace the origin of frybread to “lean times” when government rations helped sustained tribal members.

“Flour and lard were part of the ‘rations’ that were given to Native people by the government agencies on the reservations early on,” said Porter. “They took what they were given and did the best they could. And so frybread, while not the most healthy food, is most popular to Native people nationwide.”

Added Miles, “It represents much more than a food product. It’s integrated into the culture of the tribal community. In its present form, it was a way to stave off starvation. It originated in an era when people were fighting off starvation on reservations or being transported from one area to another, for instance, the Trail of Tears. The rations that came from the government were sugar, lard, flour, and so that’s essential components. And so throughout time, it originated as a way of being creative and stave off starvation. It saved a lot of lives.”

Miles noted that frybread extends far beyond the tribal community.

“There are variations across the country, the Southern states. It’s not exclusive to Native Americans,” he said. “Many cultures across the world have bread like that.”

VARIOUS NAMES, SAME THING

If you’ve been to another part of the country and saw “Navajo tacos” advertised, that’s similar to the versions typically called “Indian tacos” in this area.

Where one lives determines what it’s called and how frybread is served, said Porter.

“Each tribal group puts their own methods into creating the bread,” Porter said. “I know the Canadian tribes call it bannock. I don't know where that came from but there is a Shoshone-Bannock tribe in southeastern Idaho.”

The Frybread Factory sells strawberry frycake out of its mobile trailer at farmers markets.
Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com
DIFFERENT STYLES OF FRYBREAD

Tribes throughout the country have different ingredients and spins. Porter grew up making the frybread tacos in Arizona and has always used baking powder in his. In the Northwest, yeast is a popular ingredient in lieu of baking powder.

“I have used a recipe from the Nez Perce, my mother’s people in Idaho, which includes yeast,” said Porter. “The Northwest style, it’s usually got yeast and sometimes they use sugar in the dough. And they’re smaller. The dough would be about the size of a corn tortilla. The ones in the Southwest are about the size of a plate.”

Porter added, “The Pimas, my father's people near Phoenix, also make their own tortillas which are even bigger than their frybread. Mostly differences have to do with ingredients and methods of making dough, letting it rise, frying it in either lard, grease or now olive oil as I choose to do at home because of the fat content.”

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