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Last Updated on May 1, 2021
Native American frybread (also known as Navajo fry bread or Indian frybread) is a bit of Arizona culinary history. Served in both sweet and savory versions, fry bread is a staple that has sustained the Navajo and other indigenous people through some trying times. But there’s a reason it’s stayed around so long–it’s delicious! And it made a significant impression on a young boy.
Discovering Native American Frybread (as a kid)
You see, back when I was a mere pup of nine years old, one of my earliest food memories came from a trip out West. My mom took my brother and I, two suburban kids from Long Island, NY out to visit the desert landscapes we had only seen in western films. In Arizona we went to a rodeo, where I had my first taste of Navajo fry bread. Just like it sounds, it was a hunk of dough that was deep-fried and, in this case, dusted with powdered sugar. What was not to like?
It was a lot for an east coast suburban kid to absorb. (And absorb it I did–I was quite a chubby child.) That taste of Native American frybread led to a lifelong love of fried dough, resulting in my latent donut fetish (but that’s a story for another day).
Native American Frybread is historic (in a complicated way)
Native American frybread originated as a result of a painful period in American history. In 1864 the United States forced tribes living in Arizona–many from the Navajo Nation–to leave their lands and relocate to New Mexico. This 300-mile journey came to be known as the “Long Walk.”
This new land couldn’t easily support traditional Native American food staples of vegetables and beans. To prevent indigenous populations from starving, the government supplied the types of staples they themselves ate: canned goods, as well as white flour, processed sugar and lard. By putting their own unique spin on these ingredients, the Native Americans developed frybread.
In a sad and ironic twist, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Navajo in 1868, allowing them to return to their homeland (although the geography was much smaller). So much pain and heartache for a round-trip journey.
Frybread can be savory: Navajo Tacos
Fast forward 150 years or so, and we’re in northern Arizona exploring many Native American cultural sights. But with my taste buds were distracted by signs for fry bread tacos. Fry bread TACOS!?! Is there a way to improve upon the humble fry bread?
The waitress assured me that the fry bread taco was the best we’d find anywhere, so how could I resist? (To make things a bit confusing the Tuuvi Center is actually on Hopi territory, which is literally across the street from the Navajo Nation here in Tuba City. So instead of having a “Navajo taco” we were served a “Tuuvi taco.”) But I think we’re just splitting hairs here. When she brought out my plate with a massive heaping of food, it was so large that I looked around the room to see how many other people were joining me.
An Indian fry bread taco is just like the names says: picture a large dollop of ground beef, mix it up with spices, peppers and beans, melt some cheese on top, cover it with lettuce and tomatoes and plop the whole thing on a hubcap-sized piece of freshly fried dough. Imagine eating a cheeseburger with all the fixings on a giant donut and you get the idea.
The meat was perfectly spiced with a bit of heat but not too much. The fry bread underneath stayed crispy for the first few minutes before it gave into the juicy beef assault. I finished most of the topping but barely made a dent in the main event, the Native American fry bread.
The verdict: A Navajo fry bread taco is one of those things you should try once. But for me, as much as I love donuts, the combination of fried bread and beefy taco filling was a bit much.
(UPDATE: Unfortunately, the Tuuvi Cafe is now closed, but read on for recommendations of other places where you can find Native American Fry bread in Arizona.)
Native American Frybread can be dessert . . . SWEET!
A week later we stopped at Fry Bread House in Phoenix for another go at this Native American classic. This time we opted to forego the hubcap-sized taco and focus on dessert. Much like a creperie in France, the menu featured different combinations of sweet toppings on a fresh, warm frybread: butter, honey, cinnamon, powdered sugar . . . you get the gist. We chose the cinnamon and sugar combo (they offered a butter-cinnamon-sugar combo, but we just couldn’t go there). The cinnamon and sugar melted into the crispy dough, providing the perfect complement of crunchy, gooey and sweet. We had found our favorite–and the little boy deep inside me rejoiced.
PRO TIP: Try a frybread simply topped with cinnamon and sugar. The topping is light and flavorful and really lets the delicate crunch of the Native American frybread come through.
Fry bread is an American Classic–Really!
In 2012 the Fry Bread House won a James Beard Award in the “America’s Classics” category, making the first Native American restaurant to receive the prestigious award. Now this was more my speed. Picture a nice big fluffy donut fresh out of the fryer and you have the Fry Bread House’s dessert fry bread. Who says you can’t have it all? (Another Arizona Classic, the Sonoran Hot Dog in Tucson, also won this award in 2018–there are some great eats in AZ!)
Where to try Native American Frybread (& Navajo Tacos)
The following restaurants (in alphabetical order) serve Native American Frybread. (Confirm opening hours prior to visiting-there may be restrictions based on COVID-19 precautions.)
- Cafe Santa Rosa, Tucson. Lots of frybread variations, both sweet and savory. Note: on the menu, frybread is called “popovers.”
- Cameron Trading Post, Cameron. This combination restaurant/hotel/gift shop is located on Navajo Nation land, about 50 miles north of Flagstaff.
- Courtyard Cafe at the Heard Museum, Phoenix. This museum showcasing Native American Art serves regional specialties in its cafe, including fry bread.
- Hopi Cultural Center, Second Mesa. This combination restaurant/hotel/gift shop is located on Hopi Nation land, about 70 miles north of Winslow.
- The Fry Bread House, Phoenix. Owned by the Tohono O’odham tribe, this is the restaurant that is a James Beard Award Winner.
- Roadside stands, throughout Arizona. Often on the scenic byways, these pop-up spots often offer delicious, fresh, hot Native American Frybread. Somehow, it tastes more authentic in that setting. 😋
BONUS: You can try Native American Frybread at home
Want to make this at home? Try this native american frybread recipe. The folks at Smithsonian printed it a few years back, and we like it because the ingredients really are staples you’re likely to have at home: flour, baking powder, water and salt. And they recommend any type of oil for frying (meaning you don’t have to use lard if you don’t want.) The other nice thing about this recipe is that you can also use it for grillbread, and skip the “fry” part altogether. (Spoiler alert: the cinnamon-sugar blend tastes best on the frybread. Just sayin’ 😊 )
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