Last month, Roxanne Wilson and Loren Emerson, operators of the food truck Emerson Fry Bread, had to work about five extra hours per day to make up for lost sales. Business had slowed because of the pandemic. But in May, the 9-year-old truck became busier than ever — and is now working overtime not to get by, but to meet surging demand.
“We’ve been our busiest,” Wilson says, adding that readying for service has been like, “Prepping for a taco fest every day.”
The difference? People are leaving home to eat more, yes. Emerson is more regularly parking at a constant location (north across the street from Phoenix Indian Medical Center), sure. Most of all, though, the fry bread-focused menu has changed in one major way.
Wilson and Emerson have added a Navajo mutton sandwich.
The dish recalls the traditional mutton that Wilson, like other Navajo people, grew up eating. It has echoes of the sheep that Emerson — Mohave, Quechan, and Mexican — was introduced to through his father’s Navajo wives, first as a young child snacking on mutton ribs at the Arizona State Fair.
“The sandwich, it brings people back to how they grew up,” Emerson says.
In the early 1500s, sheep became popular in Navajo country following the animal’s introduction via the Spanish. Today, Navajo shepherds still raise sheep, and mutton remains an important local meat. That might be the key to why this sandwich, permanently added to the truck menu in November after appearing now and then over the years, has been selling at a rate topping out at about 200 a day.
“Our Native customer base went up, mostly because my reservation is closed,” Wilson says, referring to the lockdowns begun in early spring to stem the spread of COVID-19 at the Navajo Nation, which now has the highest American rate of cases.
“Navajo reservation has been closed on weekends, on nights,” she says. “I can’t even go back there to see my mom. A lot of us urban natives go back home to visit just about every weekend. They can’t do that. So they come visit us for Native food.”
Emerson Fry Bread’s Navajo mutton sandwich might be the only commercially available version in town. In the not-so-distant past, Phoenix had another destination for the sandwich, which is much more common on Navajo Nation and varies, Emerson notes, from place to place. The version at the bygone restaurant Sacred Hogan included sheep viscera, like intestines. The Emerson Fry Bread version? Straight mutton leg.
“For now,” Wilson says with a grin.
The Emerson Fry Bread mutton sandwich is a masterclass in simplicity. It is an unmarinated leg of lamb seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, browned on a hissing grill, and cut thin. It has shards of Hatch chile and stocky petals of translucent onion. It is swaddled in pillowy fry bread that has a chew cousin to the chew of the mutton. There is also a half potato, soft and eaten as part of the sandwich, and a segment of corn cob, whole and for eating on the side.
This mutton has a stark beauty. There is no sauce. Though the meat and fry bread look perhaps dry, that possibility vanishes from mind once you get eating. The burnished mutton is just salty enough, thin and charred, packed with animal flavor.
“I would have a mutton sandwich every time I went back home to the Navajo Rez from a vendor beside the road,” Wilson says. “I’m so happy that I’m able to give that to people now, especially with a huge handful of my customers not being able to travel home. It’s just a part of being Navajo.”
Wilson says that due to the dearth of options for traditional Native food, her truck, which she runs not only with her partner but with her children, has been drawing eaters from as far as San Tan Valley and Apache Junction.
The menu and sourcing, now, are in a slow state of evolution.
On Fridays, Emerson Fry Bread has started to serve a stew made with mutton and dry corn — parched by the truck operators, as they can’t return to the reservation for the traditional corn they’ve used in the past. Next week, they’ll be unveiling a new Italian ice made with prickly pear, like the truck’s understated but stellar lemonade.
Some obstacles to change remain. For one, the rising price of sheep has driven the sandwich to $12, and what the couple pays for carne asada had tripled as of Wednesday due to meat packing plant outbreaks and attendant supply disruptions. Despite this, the colorful truck has enjoyed an unexpected high tide of customers.
These days, Navajo mutton sandwiches are flying from the ordering window, steaming under their tented foil, hard grill smell leaking out over the road. Grinning through his medical mask, Loren Emerson talks future plans.
With the way things have been going, he jokes to Wilson, “We could actually start a mutton truck.”
Emerson Fry Bread
Check the food truck's Facebook page for varying location and hours.
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