The smell of braised bison and freshly made frybread permeates the air—an aroma perhaps familiar to those who grew up snacking on the deep-fried dough at community gatherings. The savory fragrance reminiscent of outdoor cookouts contrasts with high ceilings, sleek wood tabletops, and dark furnishings that give off a modern vibe. A dedicated staff bustles in perfect harmony. They sprinkle powdered sugar on desserts, brew housemade espresso, and expertly craft Indian tacos. But this isn’t a new restaurant, exactly. You’re at Off the Rez, a cafe residing in the recently reborn Burke Museum.
Inside the new edifice, which opened on the University of Washington in October, several exhibits and collections and murals and research delve into the cultural past and present of our state’s Native people. Their woodwork, baskets, art, and life all on display. As the new Burke Museum’s dining hub, Off the Rez, which began life as a food truck, celebrates both the history and contemporary presence of Washington’s indigenous communities. As one of the only Pacific Northwest businesses devoted to serving Native American food, Off the Rez serves dishes—and, by extension, the communities they honor—rarely seen in Seattle’s dining landscape.
Mark McConnell noticed a lack of indigenous dishes in Seattle. His mother grew up at the Blackfeet reservation in northern Montana, and McConnell wanted his Off the Rez menu to reflect the foods he grew up eating at family gatherings and powwows. “A lot of different Natives have come through and they get a sense of home from us because it's a comfort food that they grew up with as well,” says McConnell, noting that oftentimes Off the Rez is the only tie to their culture apart from their reservation.
McConnell along with his longtime partner and co-owner Cecilia Rikard (both UW alumni) became frybread connoisseurs when they debuted Off the Rez the food truck and catering service in 2011. While the frybread are certainly a hit and part of McConnell’s childhood, the snack reflects our colonial history. As the U.S. government systematically removed indigenous communities from their native lands, those communities were also forced to use government given rations—white flour, sugar, lard—which lacked the ingredients they traditionally found in their diet. Thus, frybread was born. It’s a testament to the communities’ adaptation and survival, but also a dark symbol of a culture stolen and forgotten.
Until more recently, as a movement to create more spaces for indigenous communities to celebrate their resilience hit Seattle full storm with the Burke and Off the Rez at the helm. McConnell and Rickard have since added dishes honoring the precolonial diets of Washington state tribes to the menu, such as the wild rice bowls (which come in taco form too) and a sweet potato salad.
Now fans, new and loyal followers alike, can eat Indian frybread tacos with braised bison, a staple of a traditional Blackfeet diet. Off the Rez delivers local Pacific Northwest flavors, too, like a chowder special featuring delicious smoked salmon. Or indulge your sweet tooth, perhaps, with a pumpkin frybread and a dollop of whipped cream.
While the cafe can draw a crowd with food alone, it also challenges visitors to understand how food becomes a platform for representation. Off the Rez stands at the intersection of local charm and reflecting the museum’s commitment to empowering the narrative of local and indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest.
“The other fun part for us has been that people, who don’t even know what Native food is and don’t know what frybread is, coming in and trying it for the first time, and being really excited about it,” Rikard says.
As the couple settles into their new space, they are excited to continue creating Native-inspired dishes and further collaborating with on future exhibits. After all, food and culture are so closely intertwined. What better place to celebrate than a museum and cafe that honor both?
Off the Rez Cafe is open seven days a week for guests to stop by after a trip to the Burke. But if you’re in a hurry for a quick bite, don’t worry, you don’t need a museum ticket to enjoy the cafe’s next creation.