The most pleasant surprise during our visits to the National Mall in Washington DC proved to be the National Museum of the American Indian and its Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe. Even though I have some American Indian heritage, planning time for this museum was a tough sell to the rest of my family.

Now that we’ve been, skipping it would have been a huge mistake.

I lured them inside by reading the reviews of the Zagat-rated Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, which has become so popular that they’ve released a cookbook. Also, we were already next door at the National Air and Space Museum and starving. While most of the Mall’s museums have cafes inside—and they did exceed my expectations—after a few days we were craving something other than burgers and sandwiches.

Mitsitam Native Food Cafe Menu

I think my husband’s mind was pretty much blown when we stepped inside. The cafe offers seasonal, authentic dishes based on Native culinary traditions of the Americas. That’s basically five geographic regions covering the entire Western Hemisphere: Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Meso America and Great Plains.

The cafe is set up by region and because the food looked so amazing, it took me a while to figure out which region(s) I’d allow my taste buds to explore.

national museum american indian mitsitam cafe

Sample dishes include maple-brined turkey with cranberry relish (Northern Woodlands), chicken tamale in a corn husk with peanut sauce (South America), cedar planked fire-roasted juniper salmon platter (Northwest Coast), yellow corn or soft flour tortilla tacos with carne (Meso America) and the crowd-pleasing Indian taco—buffalo chili on fry bread topped with onions, lettuce, tomato and cheese (Great Plains). My husband tried the buffalo chili and it was delicious. He also ordered goat and chicken tacos, both notably good.

Finally, I settled on South America which was largely seafood-based ceviches and the like. Lighter fare in the Washington DC summer heat was just what I needed. The quality of the food is something you might actually expect at a higher-end restaurant. No joke.

mitsitam cafe ceviche national museum american indian

And, Mitsitam serves wine by the bottle or split which may be helpful to soothe nerves of museum-going parents. I didn’t see wine in any other museum cafe in the National Mall but we didn’t go to all of them, obviously. Seat yourself in the casual, cheerful dining area and busy our tray after the fact. I regret not having any room for dessert.

mitsitam cafe national museum american indian dessert

We didn’t spend notably more money for this lunch versus our prior lunch in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum cafe, but the value here is significantly greater. I would say to budget about $15 per person, more if you like to sample/share multiple dishes (like we do). Instead of a good or OK lunch, we enjoyed a GREAT meal that exceeded everyone’s expectations. There is also a Mitsitam Espresso Coffee Bar that serves organic, fair trade coffee, pastries and casual fare.

About the National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004 and is the first museum in the country dedicated to American Indians. It’s conveniently located in between the U.S. Capitol and Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The museum’s five stories are fairly easy to navigate and a couple of hours here is fine.

We spent most of our visit in the imagiNATIONS Activity Center where my daughter enjoyed the hands-on exhibits and crafts immensely. Kids are given little passports to stamp after completing each activity.

national museum american indian imaginations kids

In fact, this whole area was one of her trip highlights. imagiNATIONS is open Monday 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. and Tuesday through Sunday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. We wandered through the rest of the museum, including the rather impressive gift shop, before heading back to the National Mall.

national museum american indian washington dc

But, we would have never set foot inside if it weren’t for the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe! Try it–there’s nothing else like it in the Mall.

Related: Read about our stay at Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC

Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe
950 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20560
(202) 633-7039

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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