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New York has its bagels, pretzels and pizza. Chicago has its hot dogs and sliders. San Francisco has its sourdough. And the Valley doesn't have its fry bread.
It's a perplexing situation. While less than three percent of the Valley's 2.7 million residents are Native American, fry bread is an Arizona tradition. Even as our town bulges with transplants from the Midwest and other frozen regions, fry bread remains our heritage. It's a symbol of Indian intertribal unity, a staple of powwows and favored by our state's Navajo and Hopi to enjoy with savory foods. Yet fry bread often can be found only at fairs and public festivals.
Even there, its fluffy little presence is threatened: a recent horse-show excursion finds my hungrily anticipated fry bread booth replaced by a stand peddling Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cakes. Same ingredients? Almost exactly. Similar cooking method? Yes. Comparable taste? Sure. Equally satisfying? Hardly.
Fry bread, like a funnel cake, is a simple blend of flour, baking powder, salt, milk and hot fat. Funnel cake recipes, though, add eggs and sugar for a lighter consistency. Fry bread is macho, served in pie-size rounds that require dedicated chewing, while funnel cakes come in dainty spirals that disappear on the tongue. I like funnel cakes well enough, but these confections are mere snacks. Fry bread is food.
I'm afraid the scene is getting worse. That irritating little Chihuahua is hawking chalupas everywhere, which parade as fry bread but are not. Real chalupas are made from tortilla dough, much like a tostada, while correctly cooked fry bread is light, not the puffy sweat socks served up by Taco Bell.
Our real fry bread is good enough to be eaten alone, fresh from the skillet and dusted with powdered sugar and honey. It's also a strapping foundation when spread with hearty meats, beans and cheeses to make a Pima or Navajo taco. Best of all, it is a happy vessel for dipping in rich stews, its porous core greedily soaking up broth and seasoning. Let's see a wimpy funnel cake do that.
So wherefore art thou, fry bread? Native American restaurants in the Valley are few and far between. It seems only Chef Anton Brunbauer of the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale proudly embraces our rich culture, decorating his Squash Blossom menu with Native American quinoa couscous, Navajo beans, blue corn and periodic specials like elk and three-potato stew in acorn squash. But there's still no fry bread to be found in this well-dressed eatery.
To indulge in fry bread, we must instead toss on our jeans and tennies, seek out tiny storefronts, and often, prepare ourselves for takeout. Fry bread artists are busy working their craft and have little time for or interest in ambience. In a good shop, the bread magicians, whom you'll see perfecting taste by carefully shaping, kneading and vigorously slapping around their doughs, set the mood. Resulting tastes are individual to each cook even if using the same proportions of ingredients -- minor miracles occur according to how the bread is formed and what kind of oil it's fried in.
Fry bread is hardly healthy, born from Indian women making the best of what were often poor-quality rations in reservation camps and varying availability of government-issued commodities. Yet, this simple dish is a source of pride for accomplished cooks, with long, detailed recipes culminating in accolades for the proud chef who can turn out a perfectly "poofed" piece of bread.
When served by a talented cook, fry bread is a decadent treat. It's our duty, as proud Arizonans, to seek out, support and consume hearty portions of this wonderful food.
Angelina's Mexican Food Restaurant, 5115 North 27th Avenue (inside SwapMart), 602-973-2344. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and early dinner, Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The cooks at Angelina's make poof-perfect fry bread from a recipe handed down through generations of Native American cooking. I can see them behind the counter of the stall-front shop, rolling the dough, working it into ovals, puncturing its middle and dropping it into fryers. The bread emerges glistening, puffy, crisp-edged and steaming hot, just as it should be.
Angelina's doesn't make indulging in fry bread easy -- the storefront is one of several questionable-quality food concessions hidden inside the West Valley's SwapMart, and it's only open on weekends. Admission to the mart is $1 (although we are waved through one time after explaining we're just stopping by for takeout). And there's no phone -- calls are directed to a diner under the same ownership.
But of all the fry bread I've stumbled across, Angelina's is far and away the best. And actually, my dining companion and I get a kick out of the built-in entertainment offered by SwapMart. After dining at Angelina's nine-table nest, we wander through aisles packed with close-out items from Wanda's Corner Store, antique swords, free spinal checks, bongs, a cookie jar/clock combo in the shape of a cow head and a must-have painting of Jesus setting the table for the Last Supper. The admission tariff is one of the most rewarding dollars I've ever spent.
The post-meal SwapMart ramble is much-needed exercise. My dining companion literally slumps in submission as I bring our order to the table. "I'm just a little person," he lies. "Are you trying to kill me?"