The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide.
There’s a crisis in the Northwest Coast: “We’re out of salmon,” says a server behind the counter of one of several food stations in the National Museum of the American Indian. Cafeteria patrons who have waited patiently for the fish sigh and leave the line, plastic trays in tow. As the recipient of the last piece of salmon, I feel sorry for them, but only until I eat the fish. It smacks of the canned variety, only warm and drier, problems that aren’t helped by a mysterious fruit salsa. Treks to other parts of the airy cafeteria, created to promote indigenous food from the Western Hemisphere, are just as dispiriting. The Peruvian chicken, representing South America, is also dry — and void of any seasoning. A thatch of crisp yucca fries helps fill me up, but what I really want is some garlic or citrus on my bird, which is priced, at $18.95, as if I’m in a restaurant with table service. Did early Native Americans really eat pumpkin pie? I’m doubtful, but pie is probably closer to reality than the brownies on display near the cashier. The dish with the most appeal during recent excursions finds shrimp, soft onion and red pepper in a flour tortilla, an adequate ambassador for Mesoamerica if not my first choice. (“Sorry,” said a cook, “we’re out of the pork.”) Unfortunate cooking, including an arid buffalo burger from the Great Plains, isn’t Mitsitam’s only drawback. At high noon on a recent weekday, there were plenty of steak knives to be found, but no forks, and too few staff to meet demand, so that cooks had to leave their stations in search of more food to serve the crowds. What was once a model for grazing on the Mall, under the guidance of chef Jerome Grant, now at Sweet Home Cafe in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has devolved into a sorry state of affairs. A seat near the curved picture window, framing a small waterfall, is still the best place to land, but if you’re here for much more than fry bread and a thirst quencher, good luck.
Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-6644. nmai.si.edu/visit/washington/mitsitam-cafe.
Open: Lunch daily.
Prices: Sandwiches and mains, $7.95 to $32.95.
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.