Cafe Reviews

Arizona's Fry Bread Brings Native American Cooking Into the Future

On a dry, hot morning in August, in a dirt lot you won't be able to find on a typical map, Gayle Noline stands under a small tent and works the fryer — nothing more than a large saucepan of mega-hot oil — out of which some of the best fry bread you've ever tasted will emerge. The sound of fresh dough being tossed and flattened melds with the sharp sizzle as it hits hot oil to create a pleasing culinary rhythm, barely audible over the sounds of cars whizzing by the Gila River Indian Community municipal center, south of Phoenix. The Sunna Frybread Wagon is preparing for the Friday lunch rush.

It's measurably cooler under the shade of the tent that serves as both mobile kitchen and storefront, but sweat still forms on the young woman's knitted brow as she tosses the dough back and forth between her palms, a process she calls "flapping." She can tell when it achieves just the perfect thickness by the weight, thanks to years of practice. She then drops the disc into a bubbling pot of oil. In a few instants, it emerges as a nearly perfect circle of crispy, golden, deep-fried bread, ready to be topped and consumed. The entire process takes less than two minutes.

"Every tribe has their own way of making it," says Noline, fiancée of one of the Sunna family members, as she rolls around the tangerine-size balls of dough. "But it's all the same. I think that's what connects us to fry bread."

The heart of this whole affair is the "wagon," essentially a trailer with kitchen appliances in it. Hitched to the family's white pickup, the wagon houses a full-size refrigerator and ample counter space for prep and serving. It certainly wouldn't hold up against the food trucks that travel the Valley streets on a regular basis these days, but on the reservation this is a luxury. Inside sit large trays of green and red chili, ground beef, and beans, as well as freshly shredded lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes. Everything besides the frying of the dough takes place in a traditional kitchen, before they head out for the lunch service.

"We cut the lettuce every morning," says Dew Sunna, the family's head cook. "It takes longer but it makes a difference."

Though the wagon started as his mother's dream, Dew is a main source of continued momentum. His mother and father, Gloria and Vernon, now oversee the operation while their children take care of the majority of the daily duties. The entire family takes the small business seriously, but Dew has bigger aspirations and hopes to put the skills he learned while studying at Scottsdale Culinary Institute to good use. Someday, he says, he'd love to own a brick-and-mortar restaurant off the reservation.

Though his goals are a far cry from the current reality, they may not be out of reach in light of one of the food industry's latest trends.

As with many things once considered commonplace — maybe even lowbrow — fry bread recently experienced a rise in interest from the culinary world.  Last year, the Valley's own Fry Bread House earned a James Beard Foundation America's Classics award.  The foundation's annual awards, often called the "Oscars of the food world," use the America's Classics category to highlight five regional and locally owned restaurants with "timeless appeal."

The national attention on that small family business brought more than a few new customers through the door, says Michael Perry, whose mother, Cecelia Miller, started the restaurant more than a decade ago. Nowadays, it's not uncommon for the place to have a line stretching out the door.

"I didn't realize what it was," Perry admits. "It just seemed like another award, and then this guy told me what it was about . . . I did some looking into it and I realized it was huge."

It might come as a surprise to see fry bread, a dish once viewed as fairground food, emerge as something à la mode, in some cases even swanky. For high-end diners with pocket change to spare, Kai, the state's only Forbes Five Star Award and AAA Five Diamond Award Signature Restaurant, offers a take on the dish. To see more authentic renditions — at a much lower price point — people hunt all over the Valley, searching out one of the locations that serves the dish year-round. (We've done some hunting for you; see the list that accompanies this story.) Fry bread is a dish with many names and styles that sparks heated debates about who's doing it "right" — and where it originates.

As with many ethnic dishes, there's no single answer.

But while fry bread has taken the stage as a veritable culinary delicacy, the dish's beginnings remain a topic of dispute. In the context of the new pan-Indian culture, the dish, which many say was incorporated into the Native American diet in response to relocation and seizure of native lands by the U.S. government, has taken on new meaning as a unifying symbol for native people. Through years of cultural infusion, fry bread has come to hold a prominent place in the lexicon of native food.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria