The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on 12th Street is an enormous outreach by the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. With a mission to "preserve and perpetuate Pueblo culture,” the center houses a museum, theater and gift shop--and the completely renovated Pueblo Harvest Café and Bakery.
The once humble café now occupies a large section of the center on two floors, as well a patio and balcony. The entrance is flanked by a two-story fireplace that lends warmth and atmosphere to what could be a too-open space, with its high ceilings and a museum outside the door. Instead, when filled with diners, the restaurant seems airy and filled with energy while still maintaining a sense of intimacy.
I visited at both lunch and dinner. Though dinner has potential, I was most taken with lunch. Brimming with relaxed patrons who were making an afternoon of the center, Pueblo Harvest gave off an active vibe that was contagious. At dinner, I found an empty dining room, which gave the management no reason to open the second floor or patios.
Pueblo Harvest's menu incorporates an admirable array of Native American, Mexican and Southwestern dishes in a nod to the many cultures that have converged on this rather unique part of the country. For the most part, expect to find Native American dishes influenced by more typical New Mexican cuisine, though there are several representations of customary Native dishes.
Starting with “lamb lollipops,” I was, from the start, surprised by the efforts of this restaurant. Marinated in lemon and rosemary, the meat was tender and rich. I'm not sure if you're supposed to eat the little ribs with your hands, but I figured the “lollipop” part of the name gave me permission. Pueblo fry bread arrived as the second appetizer. The massive round was faultless, with a slight suggestion of sweetness--almost like a savory funnel cake--bound up in amicably competing textures.
The entrées were equally captivating. A bowl of rustic mutton stew was homey but not gamey. Feast Day stew was like a thick posole minus the hominy, with succulent hunks of pork bathed in a racy red chile sauce--not a bad way to warm up on a blustery day.
Starting with “lamb lollipops,” I was, from the start, surprised by the efforts of this restaurant. Marinated in lemon and rosemary, the meat was tender and rich.
I was treated to a gorgeous relleno that made other versions seem limp and uninspired. A plump poblano was stuffed with chicken and cheddar and rolled in blue cornmeal. The cheese had separated slightly, making the rellenos somewhat oily, but otherwise they were divine. Santa Ana enchiladas were less surprising—blue corn tortillas—but still good.
I truly enjoyed the bison short ribs. Braised in red wine and dressed with stewed plums, I could see these meaty darlings becoming an addiction warranting a televised intervention. For lack of better words that would do them justice, they were perfection. The mashed potatoes next to them, however, were entirely too garlicky. I wish I had the foresight to replace them with the calabacitas--squash, corn and peppers, indefectibly sautéed to an ideal combination of tenderness and caramelization--that many of the menu's dishes are served with.
The service was always friendly, though occasionally inexperienced. The slight gaffes were easily forgivable in light of the staff's determination to be available and informative. Pueblo Harvest would make a rewarding afternoon outing with friends and family over the holiday season. Visit the museum, catch a short film, then drop in for a lunch that brings New Mexico's first cuisine off the reservation and onto a contemporary dining table.
The Alibi recommends:
Bison short ribs
Fighting over the last piece of fry bread
Pueblo Harvest Café and Bakery, 2401 12 th Street NW, 724-3510. Hours: Mon-Thu 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri and Sat 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun brunch 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Price range: $8.99 (Tewa taco) to $79 (Oop Ka Waan, a 32-ounce long bone ribeye served tableside for two). Ambience: Café with a greater purpose. Credit cards accepted, large parties, bakery.