Navajo inspired food by Chef Mark Mason
Our last evening in Salt Lake City and so many decisions to make. Dinner. Where? Without question: The Black Sheep Café in Provo, Utah! Aaron and Lauren told us this was Navajo inspired food and the flavour combinations were completely new to them: tastes they had never experienced before. Aboriginal food is of great personal interest to me. I was all in. And, I have always wanted to see Brigham Young University and visit Provo, so that would be an added bonus.
We waited for our reservation and enjoyed the warmth of the interior atmosphere.
We were seated and very hungry. The menu is interesting. I wanted to try it all. Most compelling for me was that description: “this food will be like nothing you have ever experienced.” Look at that sweet face! Doesn’t it just spell S-W-E-E-T and I-N-N-O-C-E-N-T? She is going to be Momsey in February!
A pitcher of Cactus Lemonade was in order, followed by an appetizer of their famous Green Chile Fries.
Finding out we were from Canada, our waiter said that these fries were similar to our poutine… and, yes they are! Similar, but different. Really delicious with the cheesy topping and the green chilli sauce. Not at all spicy, but exceptionally flavourful.
Can you imagine the taste experience?
Soups are my thing, and I knew The Green Chili Stew would be my order before arriving. Lauren had told me that she had tasted this when a friend ordered it and could not get it out of her mind. She could not describe the flavour, but said it wasn’t at all spicy. “Just so delicious, mom. Like nothing you have ever tasted!”
After seeing it served, while waiting, the presentation alone, had me convinced. This is a work of art, no? It was tasty. Really tasty. Yet, not “new to me” flavours. A complex mix of vegetables with the gentle rich backdrop of the green chile. I could not recreate this dish. It was definitely complex and so nurturing and satisfying. I gave it to Lauren, though. She had ordered the Squash Soup made with Mexican Grey Squash and I was happy to trade. The new-to-be Momsey has to be well nourished!
Each soup comes with your choice of flat bread: the Navajo Frybread or the Nanniskadii. I chose the Frybread and Lauren chose the Nanniskadii so we could try each. The Frybread is identical to our Canadian Bannock when it is fried, yet Chef Mark Mason had never heard of Bannock. That was a big surprise for me. Some of our First Nations People call fried bannock Frybread, here, too. This was a delicious, light, crisp and addictive treat.
The Nanniskadii is served with a little butter and honey. A subtle amount, but you can see the glean of the brushing. It is very similar to naan. Almost indescernable. I would have to do a side by side tasting, yet not sure that would serve any good purpose, as there are so many different naans… each at the hand of the maker. Similar to the Nanniskadii, I am sure. It was equally as delicious, but completely different than the Frybread. A different dough, too, according to the chef. That was a surprise as our Bannock is made both ways, using the same dough. Chef Mark Mason said his mother really didn’t teach him anything about Navajo cooking; it was his grandmother who he learned from. He recalls visiting her as a child, in the hogan, where she would make the dough by hand and cook the Nanniskadii over the fire. I could almost see the image of his grandmother in his eyes. His mother is famous for her frybread. “That’s one thing my mother does make from our culture!” And she was actually in the kitchen frying it up all evening.
This soup was my highlight of the meal. Vanja ordered it. His eyes lit up, he uttered a guttural growl of pleasure, shoulders slumped and his eyes dimmed as he dove into the bowl. He was lost to us and everyone in the room as he lapped up his bowl of Posole. It is made with “tender and smoky pork with hominy in a savory red chile broth”. This was home food at its best. Deeply complex, rich, comforting and lively, all at once. This was my unforgettable moment. I would love the recipe for this soup.
It was also my first experience with homany. They sell it in cans at La Tienda, our Mexican Grocer in Edmonton, and I will be there to buy some: pillowy and toothsome – all about the texture, for me.
Aaron had been dreaming of the Hog Jowl Tacos served with a side of cilantro lime rice and pinto beans. Both Ragan and Aaron raved about the sides. The rice was novel and tasty. The beans were, well, beans. This was the only item on the menu that was nondescript, for me. They certainly were tasty, but there wasn’t a little je ne sais quoi added to the mix. No surprise there, except for the toppings. Eating the beans with the toppings was particularly pleasurable.
Above is the Mexican Grey Squash Soup. It was a tasty squash soup with an unexpected nuance of flavour. It was pure velvet in texture, yet just too much of one flavour and one texture in such a generous bowl, for me. Would definitely order a smaller bowl as a side to a meal if it was an option.
This was truly a communal meal. We had enjoyed more time with Aaron and Lauren than we ever had. When they visit us, we see them at meal time, and that is it. This visit, we were together for every meal, and non-stop. It was bliss. We were eating off one another’s plates, tasting and savouring. That is rare for our family, and it unfolded so organically: the evening was one of pure pleasure in every sense of the word.
Vanja’s main was a Navajo Taco. There were three varieties on our menu this evening. I forget the specifics of his, but he really enjoyed it. Without the soup, it wouldn’t have been enough food for my carnivore, as he doesn’t like lime or cilantro, so the rice was out. The rice was vibrant, but me thinks there should be an option of two of these on a plate for the “man” at the table. Vanja is not a guy who is into anything exotic. He like his food basic. Basic Eastern European, I mean. Again, he was very impressed with the flavours on his plate (sans the rice) and was deeply satisfied with his menu choices this evening. It isn’t that often I enjoy the pleasure of seeing him so immersed in such enjoyment when we eat out.
Meeting Chef Mark Mason was, of course, a highlight for me. He is a French trained, traditional chef. His sister decided to buy a restaurant in Provo and asked him to come out and design the menu. He has never looked back. His dad makes the traditional silver and turquoise Navajo jewelery by hand, that is sold in the front of the restaurant. His mom makes the frybread, and Mark designed the menu completely inspired by his childhood as a little boy growing up in the Navajo culture in Utah.
The restaurant almost has a cult following. They have very recently opened up a second location in Salt Lake City, a block from where my son in law works called the Blue Poblano Taqueria. Don’t expect to find a website. The Black Sheep Café site has been “under construction” since before they opened. They are simply too busy making delicious food! I regret not photographing our entire table as it was filled with plates of food. Oh, what a night it was. Walking out into the cool autumn air, it was dark. No time for Brigham Young University this trip. But, what memories we returned home with… and what a list we now have of “must go back to’s”…. and the Black Sheep Café is certainly on that list. They have not seen the last of us yet. Not even close!