THE CAFETERIA at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall makes it clear that cafeteria food doesn't have to be bland and boring. It also points out, albeit subtly, how healthful the American diets were before the Europeans arrived to lard it over them. (And if you're green-minded, you might look out at the water installations and garden and ponder the beauties of the New World in the 15th century.)
Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe almost sounds like a health food store, and in fact, the predominantly indigenous ingredients on its fairly extensive menu -- venison, buffalo, corn, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, wild rice, quinoa, jicama, fruits, nuts, maple syrup, cranberries, chilies -- are a back-to-nature inspiration. The only pork or cheese dishes are from what the menu refers to as "Meso America," i.e., Tex-Mexico and Central America, where the Spanish influence was greatest. (The "other white meat" industry need not protest pork's many leaner cuts, but it is certainly true that the importation of fatty meat and dairy products was not entirely beneficial to the post-Columbian diet.)
"Mitsitam" (the accent is on the last syllable) is by way of being a local phrase, roughly "let's eat" in the Piscataway and Delaware language; and all along the snaking order lines, as curious diners crane to read menu boards and ask for recommendations, a pleasant conversational hubbub arises. But it's as much of necessity as of neighborliness: They're asking for directions in a somewhat confusing setup.
Mitsitam's dishes are divided among five regional stations, representing the Northern Woodlands, South American, Meso America, the Great Plains, and the Northwest Coast and Columbia Plateau. Several of the stations are visually intriguing, with visible grill fires and pots. But as they are grouped in a semicircle, patrons tend to wander back and forth trying to decide. To add to the confusion, the choices change somewhat from day to day, but that isn't obvious to customers in the beginning. The basic menu items, which are posted above the five stations, do not entirely correspond to the day's offerings, and the actual dish names are stuck down along the sneeze guard, so that until you get right up to the ordering spot, you can't actually see what there is to order. (The smoked trout salad wasn't visible until too late.) The drink coolers are sort of in between stations and not as well marked as they might be, either. Daily handouts that patrons could look over before entering and causing a logjam in the center of the swirl would be a lot better.
Nevertheless, the issue is the food, and much of the food is quite good indeed: moderately spicy buffalo chili and a sweeter dried buffalo, corn and potato stew; various skillet-roasted vegetables (on different days, the offerings were honeyed yellow beets, rutabaga and mixed root veggies); the wild rice salad with watercress, carrots and seeds; fennel and jicama salad or jicama, orange and nopales salad; quinoa; molasses baked beans; cucumber salad with peppery watercress, etc. Even the chili-dusted french fries are better than the average fast food, despite having to wait a bit under heat lamps.
The tamal in cornhusks comes stuffed with either black beans or the fine shredded chicken in green chili sauce with peanuts. At two for $6.95, they're a best bet. A bit of crispy skin proved that the roasted turkey breast had, as advertised, been brushed with maple syrup.
Most of the slips are relatively minor, especially with such constant demand. Ash-roasted corn on the cob was a little too done and gone soft, but tasty; on the other hand, the blue and yellow Peruvian potato salad was a mix of fully and not so fully cooked spuds. Cold fresh sardines topped with stewed tomatoes and onions was a nice idea, but too much handling -- cooking, marinating and chilling -- dulled the sardine's flavor and deadened the texture.
Both the venison and buffalo entrees have been quite good, though the buffalo was actually tastier (and the venison grilled a little dry). The lobster roll is only so-so, the lobster salad being dry and indifferently flavored and the roll rather similar.
The roasted cedar-plank salmon is quite tender and would be absolutely first-rate except for excessive salting, a problem that also afflicted the pinto beans that accompanied it for a double whammy. Even so, the two-person platter they were part of -- the five-region sampler, which is produced at the Northwest/Columbia station -- is quite a bargain: carved buffalo, the salmon, wild rice, beans, one of the vegetable salads, and a choice of sauces, mushrooms, breads and so on for $18.95. (You can also get the surf and turf separately.) And it is plenty for two, which brings up the issue of tray overloading. Cafeterias are notoriously tempting (wasn't that the place you first heard the warning, "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach"?), but because it is inside the museum, food cannot be taken out. No doggie bags. You've been warned.
After 3, the menu is limited to some of the cafe's "quick picks," but even those are pretty tempting: Among the choices is the roast salmon, a smoked turkey sandwich on wild rice bread and a chipotle-rubbed chicken wrap with black bean spread.
There are plenty of sweets and snacks, many of them, not surprisingly, sounding like a Thanksgiving reenactment: Indian pudding, maple popcorn balls, peanut brittle, plantain chips, pumpkin cookies and the very Halloween-ish spiced pumpkin seeds. There is a nice variety of teas, fruit juices, coolers and also wine.