It felt like I was making a crank call when, the day before Thanksgiving, I rang the Pueblo Harvest Café and Bakery and asked, “Are you guys doing anything special tomorrow?” Without acknowledging any irony in the suggestion that Native Americans might celebrate the immigration of the Pilgrims, the man described the massive buffet they were preparing, which included roast goose, prime rib, cornmeal-battered red snapper, deer osso bucco, and Cajun-rubbed deep-fried turkey, along with an omelet station, all-day breakfast bar and a massive dessert table.The sprawling 10,000 square-foot Pueblo Indian Cultural Center is dominated by a museum. Staying true to the Cultural Center’s mission “to preserve and perpetuate Pueblo culture,” a variety of traditional Pueblo-style meals are served at the Café. But its kitchen can turn out most any dish, simple or complex, including holiday service. Thanksgiving is hardly the only special meal the Pueblo Harvest Café’s kitchen turns out. Next week there’s a Valentine’s Day meal. On Fat Tuesday there will be a “Bourbon Street Pairing Dinner” with five New Orleans-style courses, each paired with a different bourbon.On normal days, fancy foods are served alongside traditional fare. This can create a strange contrast. Pueblo food is very simple, and when a world-class kitchen is preparing it along with dishes like wild boar tenderloin with chipotle demi-glace, one might expect one form to influence the other. But the Pueblo dishes don’t get fancied up. They are prepared very well, but without leaving the borders of what you’d experience at a Pueblo feast day. Meanwhile, the kitchen’s creativity is allowed room to run in creations like the duck mole tostadas ($8). Sprinkled with Mexican queso fresco, these three delicious tostadas are huge for an appetizer plate. Another non-Pueblo dish that impresses is the kale salad ($10). Tossed with salad mix leaves, wheat berries, pecans and blueberries, and topped with feta, the salad is well-rounded and luxurious without being decadent.The Caesar salad ($6) is less fabulous. Although it’s worth noting that for an extra six bucks you can have a large slab of seared tuna on top, the fish turns out to be the best part of the salad. I’ll give props for the fried capers too, but my biggest issue was that the dressing tastes too much like ranch for me to take it seriously as a Caesar.I have nothing against ranch dressing, mind you. In fact, the green chile ranch that comes with the blue corn onion rings ($9) is a perfect sauce for that context—and a very good context it is. The tower of rings arrives stacked on a spike, accompanied by some smoky house salsa as well. The breading is puffy, like pancake batter, with notes of blue corn earthy nuttiness and a great match with the sweet onion inside.In a nod to the hunting heritage of Native Americans, several game meats grace the menu. The blueberry-juniper sauce on the elk entrée ($39) delivered soulful juniper notes in a way that was as intriguing as it was delicious. The bison short ribs ($25) braised in red wine, meanwhile, were just plain falling-off-the-bone decadent.The traditional Pueblo offerings, while devoid of pretense, were expertly crafted. The apple pie ($1.75) looked like the typical Pueblo-style pie, which is to say more like a sweet sandwich. I’ve had similar pie many times at farmers markets, festivals or feast days, but this one was better in every way. The pastry was flakier. The filling was less cloyingly sweet. There are traditional soups of the kind you might find on one of the 19 Pueblos in New Mexico. Of these, the mutton stew ($6.50) was my favorite, with a thin broth and hearty chunks of meat and vegetables. The green chile ($5.50) was just OK—you can do a lot better elsewhere in town.Many dishes come with frybread. And while it’s the same simple frybread you’ve had before, the Pueblo Harvest Café’s version is superior. Less greasy, more flaky and a perfect shade of caramel.In addition to the usual dishes like Frito pie ($9) or Indian tacos ($12), there are a few creative twists. Not fancy twists, mind you, but fun, like the the Rez Dog ($9)—a twice-fried, bacon-wrapped hot dog served on a beans and cheese-plastered frybread with chile on top. The “Pueblo” beans it contained (also available as a side) are unseasoned, as if the chefs have total confidence in their intrinsic flavor.The Flea Market sandwich ($13) was impressive-looking on its plate-sized frybread. But when I folded it over and dug in, something was missing, something to bind together the lamb chunks with the lettuce and tomatoes and green chile. That something turned out to be the green chile ranch that came with my onion rings. Later in the meal I tried adding some red chile, and that was good too.Although I can’t see the Acoma connection suggested by its name, the Acoma French dip ($13) is a great sandwich. The meat is soft and rare, held together with Swiss cheese, garlic mayo and chopped green chile. The salty prime rib jus it came with made the soft, creamy sandwich go down all the easier.Breakfast looks like a typical New Mexican spread, with huevos rancheros ($9.99), breakfast burritos ($9.99)—which you can get with Spam, if you want to be truly authentic—and any-style eggs with red or green. But there are a few rootsy dishes to choose from as well, such as the Chackewe eggs ($9.99), which are carne adovada and eggs served atop a mound of blue corn porridge. It was a brilliant juxtaposition of intense and bland flavors, with spicy, chunky carne and creamy yolks (I had my eggs over easy) all melding together atop the purple, bland mush. The sprinkles of diced tomatoes and onions made their contributions as well.If it’s a crowded night, such as a rowdy weekend “Party on the Patio”—with live music and horno pizza served on a heated patio—the service can be a bit, shall we say, on New Mexico time. If you have the place to yourself some afternoon, your order will appear nearly immediately. If you show up mid-day on weekends, meanwhile, you will be treated to Pueblo dancers.But maybe not on Thanksgiving.
Pueblo Harvest Caféindianpueblo.org2401 12th Street NW843-7270Hours: 8am to 8:30pm Monday to Thursday, 8am to 9pm Friday and Saturday, 8am to 4pm Sundays Booze: YesPlastic: Yes The Alibi recommends: Rez dog, kale salad, mutton stew, duck mole tostada, blue corn onion rings