While Mexican, Italian, Chinese, and other ethnic dining spots dot the U.S. map, restaurants serving the nation’s oldest cuisine, American Indian, remain hard to find. Ben Jacobs and Matthew Chandra want to change that.
In December 2008, the college pals opened Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery to bring Native American food to Denver. The fast casual boasts a menu inspired by Jacobs’ Osage tribe roots and the universal themes of Native cuisine. From Indian tacos and medicine-wheel nachos topped with homemade salsa to bison ribs covered in blueberry barbecue sauce, Jacobs and Chandra dish out the best of Native comfort food.
For its novel efforts, Tocabe (an Osage word for “blue”) has generated consistent buzz, including a segment on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
Jacobs discusses Tocabe and its spirited work to inject Native American food into the nation’s culinary consciousness.
How did Tocabe start?
Matt came with me to visit family in Oklahoma and fell in love with the food and the experience. That got us thinking about opening a restaurant, especially since you can’t get Native American cuisine unless you’re at a powwow or special event.
We spent two years planning, researching different tribal areas, and refining recipes. When we opened, I was 25 and Matt had just turned 26. We had a plan and went for it. Being naïve, there was never a concern about failure.
Why is Native American cuisine so overlooked?
American Indian society in general is often overlooked, but it runs deeper than that. Primarily, Native Americans haven’t thrown themselves into the mix to create exposure for their food. For Matt and I, we had a connection and understood what needed to be done: American Indian cuisine needed to be a part of the culinary revolution.
When did you realize you had something special?
When we heard from the Food Network. That was all based on fan mail. We started to see that the uniqueness of our food brought people in, but it was the consistency, quality, and taste that brought them back.
Once the show aired in September, things started to snowball. We had eight employees when the Food Network taped here and we now have 21. Things just aren’t the same—in a good way.
We’re in the process of growing. We’ve spent the last 18 months looking for another location and we’ll have a spot in downtown Denver running this summer. We’ll then look at branching out from there and hope to position the concept throughout the country.
By Daniel P. Smith