New Navajo eatery does the basics well

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, March 4, 2010

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Mutton might not be a big seller at most food outlets in this Navajo Nation border town, but at Ashkii's Navajo Grill, mutton - or lamb, to be exact - is the staple of the menu.

The grill, Farmington's newest Navajo eatery, was in its sixth day of operation when I had the chance to try it out recently.

It should be noted up front that, perhaps because they've not yet had a chance to work out all the glitches, Ashkii's is not the place to come if you're in a hurry to eat during peak periods of the day.

When I was there over the lunch hour, the wait to get your order was running up to 45 minutes, so I waited until well after the lunch crowd had left to place my order.

The menu has standbys like Navajo tacos and roast lamb sandwiches, but I asked the manager, Danabah Begay, for a recommendation.

He suggested I try the Ace pizza, named for a customer who asked for lamb meat instead of pepperoni on his pizza.

Ashkii's offers Navajo pizza, which is a pepperoni pizza but on fry bread rather than a pizza round. The Ace pizza was created three days after the restaurant opened for business Feb. 17, Begay said. Since then, people who enjoy the fusion of Italian and Navajo flavors can try an Ace pizza.

I waited a little more than 10 minutes after placing my order, sipping a well-made cup of Navajo tea while I waited. The tea was strong enough to taste the flavors distinct to the plant, but not strong enough to overwhelm and leave a film on the pallet. I added a little sugar, but the tea would've been good enough to drink by itself.

Ashkii's brews its Navajo tea in an old-fashioned blue enamel spatterware coffeepot, which contrasted with the stainless steel pots that surround it behind the counter.

The Ace pizza was a simple dish, a 10-inch piece of fry bread topped with pizza sauce, melted mozzarella cheese and pieces of lamb.

At first glance, I needed some time to adjust to a fry bread pizza, as I have heard of such creations, but never had eaten one. I took a slice and the pizza sauce dripped from the edges.

The first bite consisted of a seemingly even mixture of ingredients until the tangy tomato sauce took over the subtle flavors of the bread, cheese and meat. The sauce mainly tasted of tomatoes with very little seasoning.

In addition, the uneven bubbled contours of the fry bread allowed the sauce to collect in pools, adding to its tendency to overwhelm the other flavors and increasing the number of napkins needed to clean my mess. I added Parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper in hopes of balancing out the acidic overkill of the sauce, but to no avail. Each bite was the same, and the sauce could benefit from a little bit of doctoring.

However, the fry bread had excellent texture, neither a cracker nor a piece of leather. It tore easily and was easy to chew, though I thought it needed a dash of salt. But that was remedied by simply sprinkling salt on the bread.

The lamb was also good. Unlike some meat from food stands I've experienced, the Ashkii's lamb was mild-tasting and cooked just until done. It was tender enough to be torn off in bite-sized morsels and had no rankness to the flavor.

After that I tucked into the "Navajo ice cream" dessert Begay had picked out for me, a small piece of fry bread topped with apple pie filling, ice cream and sprinkled with cinnamon.

Again, the bread was good. However, the ice cream was flat tasting and the apples were sweet but lacked a certain natural flavor, so the dessert was more like a dish of processed sugar with good fry bread.

Altogether, my bill came to a little more than $13. However for most menu items like stew or roast lamb sandwich, a customer should expect to pay about $8 depending on the type of drink that's ordered.

Ashkii's co-owner Bernice Begay said the cost of operating an indoor café is the main reason why their sandwiches run higher than most places offering the same dishes. And it is nice to eat good-tasting Navajo comfort food without a coating of windblown dust on it.

Even though the items I ate weren't the flavors I expected to taste when I visited Ashkii's Navajo Grill, I would most definitely go back to try the plain old roast lamb sandwich or one of their stews because those seem to be their best dishes.

After all, the need for an all-weather place to get freshly made Navajo food in Farmington is acute - they did sell out of meat on opening day - and from what I experienced, the meat and the bread make Ashkii's worthy of another try.

Ashkii's Navajo Grill (123 Broadway), is open Monday through Friday starting at 5 a.m. and Saturday starting at noon.

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