Seattle's soon-to-open Off the Rez incorporates precolonial foods into the menu with braised bison tacos and wild rice bowls. 

By Naomi Tomky
October 09, 2019
Off the Rez Cafe / Photo courtesy Burke Museum

When Cecilia Rikard and Mark McConnell first started serving frybread tacos from their turquoise truck in 2011, they were trying to fill a hole in Seattle’s culinary offerings. When they open their new Off the Rez Café on October 12 as part of the $99-million, 113,000-square-foot, newly remodeled Burke Museum, they’ll have gone from tiny niche filler to building block of a local icon. The pairing of a Native American food truck and a natural history museum seems like a no-brainer, but the path to creating a café and museum worthy of each other has been a long one.

“We wanted to bring something new to the table,” said Rikard of the original concept, modeled after the "Indian tacos" of McConnell’s childhood. McConnell’s mother is Blackfeet, and he grew up eating the filled pillows of fried flatbread at family gatherings but couldn’t find them regularly in Seattle. From the first night they opened, they found a receptive, excited audience for their classic chili tacos, pow wow burger, and succotash quinoa salad.

Off the Rez Cafe

After initial success and earning a crowd of regulars that would trail the truck from location to location, as well as doing a booming catering business, the pair began to look for a way to expand when the museum approached them to put in a bid. The process started almost a year and a half ago, and involved dozens of other businesses—many with far more employees and years of experience—competing for the space. But Rikard and McConnell used their edge: their food was a perfect fit and they already knew their way around a tiny kitchen. What’s more, the pair met while both were attending the University of Washington, the same campus where the Burke Museum (and now their café) would stand. “It’s so weird,” said Rikard. “A handful of years ago we would walk by as students. Now, we’re a piece of something that’s a huge destination.”

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But while frybread and the tacos made from it are ubiquitous in Native American culture today, it holds a fraught place, given that it is a direct descendent of colonialism; frybread was historically made with white flour, sugar, and lard provided by the U.S. government, rather than traditional Native ingredients or techniques. McConnell chose to showcase frybread because it was the food that he grew up eating in his mom's hometown and at the pow wows he attended. But the couple is now excited to add some precolonial foods traditional to the Washington tribes honored throughout the rest of the museum, with menu items like a braised bison taco, wild rice bowls, and sweet potato salad.

“A focus on what’s seen in Washington State,” said Rikard, echoing the purpose of the museum itself. There are also a few museum-friendly additions, including full catering options for the many event venues, espresso, beer, wine, and breakfast options such as Nutella-topped frybread and a yogurt parfait with housemade maple, pumpkin seed, and dried berry granola. But the biggest change from two-person truck team to cornerstone of a major museum, continued Rikard, was having a team behind the project. While at some points that was a struggle for the scrappy start-up, it resulted in a stunning café space, designed by Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig.

Off the Rez Cafe / Photo courtesy Burke Museum

Though the narrow hallway of a kitchen is barely bigger than the truck, the marble countertop and light-filled seating area welcome diners. A pivoting window wall opens via truck-tire-sized hand crank to serve as a roof over the patio seating area during warmer weather and incorporating the café into the museum’s new outdoor space featuring 80,000 native plants. It’s an interconnectedness that brings together the exhibits—including one on revitalization of traditional Native food practices in Washington State—the architecture, and Off the Rez’s new café.

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