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?"
"Of course not," I fib. It's true Angelina's doesn't skimp on size; these are hefty monsters squatting on necessarily sturdy Chinet-style plates. But a more pleasant threat I couldn't imagine than the open-faced fry bread tacos ($4.75) -- topped with hoards of red or green chili, ground or shredded beef, or chicken.
These are top-quality stuffings: the torn, spicy beef or all-white-meat poultry is laced with tangy-tuned cheddar, silky beans, lettuce and tomato. Ground beef, though fresh, is slightly chewy, but red chili comes in big chunks so vigorously seasoned that we pass up Angelina's excellent homemade salsa. Whichever our toppings, it all melts together in a satisfying goo while the bread remains impossibly crispy. Angelina's fry bread, in fact, retains its bubble-light goodness even in takeout, when we savor it au naturel ($2.50) with simple shakes of powdered sugar and sticky squeezings of honey.
Angelina's supplements its fry bread base with familiar but equally well-prepared Mexican dishes. A No. 1 combination ($6) groans under the weight of a tostada, taco, tamale, rice and beans. The soup-plate-size bean and cheddar tostada nestles on a spectacular corn tortilla -- it's so fresh and greaseless I can hear it crisp between my teeth. A fluffy tamale is so good I do a double take: Can I really be dining at a SwapMart? But I am, and it is wonderful, its thick corn masa body drenched with lots of robust red sauce and smeared with a thin layer of shredded beef.
The state fair may come only once a year, but at Angelina's, the carnival plays every weekend.
Native Hands, 8806 East McDowell Road, Scottsdale, 480-675-9443. Hours: Breakfast and lunch, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Native Hands has been in business here for 10 years, the young man behind the counter tells me, but how have I missed it? A Phoenix resident since the '70s, I've traveled long and far on these mean streets, but until the opening of the Pima Freeway, I had no idea this restaurant existed.
After all this time, I'm not entirely sure its owners are aware, either. Every time I visit, the shop is in various states of transition and mostly declining. It's difficult not to like the place, given its loveable clumsiness and the warm personality of its lone server. But forgiveness leads to frustration, after my third visit and third apology of "sorry, we don't have that today." Green chili stew with tortilla or fry bread ($5.95) understandably is a best seller, and diners are encouraged to arrive early to snag this treat. But the menu-listed menudo was discontinued long ago, tamales take too much of the kitchen's time, and finally, on the last visit, our server confides that the restaurant is abandoning its Mexican menu all together. Oh, and by the way, someone has walked off with the credit-card machine, so do we have cash, please?
Hey. Life is an adventure, and if Native Hand's fry bread was a little better, I'd be all over this ride. Yet these big plates suffer from heavy dough and sad flavor. Folded-over fry bread stuffed with beans and cheese ($4.50) doesn't deliver much more than the basics, while a Pima taco combination ($5.50) adds a spoonful of so-so red or green chili. My choice of red is stringy and bland on its bed of onions and mushy bread. A straight Pima taco ($5.25) is worse: dry hamburger tastes of cold fat, with no rescue from one-dimensional beans, cheese and onion.
Opt for the house special instead ($4), with the ground beef jazzed by sizzling jalapeños, tomato and onion and scooped with warm corn tortilla chips. A simple basket of fry bread ($5), finally, is hardly dessert when it's delivered minus its promised honey and powdered sugar.
The small oversights add up. There's no salsa in our takeout order. An eat-in order of rice never materializes. We have to request chips. While I hesitate to criticize any eatery willing to carry on our fry bread legacy, Native Hands is going to have to try a lot harder to keep my interest.
With just four tightly packed tables, The Fry Bread House isn't a good choice for a leisurely lunch. Indeed, while waiting for my takeout order on one visit, I find myself perched on a wooden high chair in the corner. There's simply no other space to spare. But this beige-and-orange-painted shop knows its business, cranking out admirable fry bread, served hot and fresh from a compact, humming kitchen. During the 10 minutes or so I wait for my order, the front door opens and closes perhaps a dozen times as hungry fry bread fans file in for their fixes.
The fare served at the Fry Bread House is a close contender to Angelina's, separated only by a crisp edge. Fry bread here is virtually greaseless, a pillowy puff peeking through the lightest veil of vegetable oil. It's nearly perfect, but just misses that nifty crunch I appreciate at Angelina's.
Also, it's strictly personal preference, but I prefer my fry bread served open-faced, so there's lighter bread per bite. While Angelina's offers a choice, The Fry Bread House sticks to taco pockets. On an eat-in visit, diners around me wrestle the hefty monsters to their mouths and look at me strangely as I dismantle my dish under knife and fork, the better to distribute bread and filling ratios.
A red chili taco ($4.69), for example, is better once the generously portioned meat is allocated evenly over its golden-brown bread. And digging apart my vegetarian taco ($5.09) makes it easier for me to balance bites of smoky beans, green chiles, produce and sour cream. When fillings run low, my dining companion and I tear off hunks of plain bread and dip it in thin, fiery hot sauce.
If you haven't been to the Fry Bread House in a while, it's worth a visit. A new menu features worthy Native American noshes like a chorizo beef combo taco ($5.09). Fry bread pockets are crammed with truly spicy pork sausage and the usual accompaniments of melting cheddar, beans and lettuce. But best of all is the new hominy beef stew ($4.69). There's not nearly enough of this salty, savory broth, floating with tender chunks of beef, hominy and mellow seasoning. Crisp hominy (dried whole corn) pops in my mouth with such deep, natural flavor that I scrape the bottom of my bowl for every last drop.
Arizona residents: Forget the funnel cakes. Drop the chalupas. Pledge your allegiance to fry bread, a food that makes this state of ours great.
Contact Carey Sweet at 602-744-6558 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.