By Ernie Alderete
My favorite part of visiting San Diego’s Barona Valley was the food! Wonderful Native American cuisine lovingly prepared faithful to authentic, age-old Barona Band of Mission Indian recipes.
The casino houses three major restaurants; Barona Oaks Steak House, the Branding Iron Café and Ranch House Buffet.
The well-appointed steak house offers the finest Southwestern cuisine, including some very unusual items. I enjoyed an inch thick Buffalo Rib Eye steak that was out of this world. And I have never liked buffalo before, but the rib eye cut is as good or better than any beef rib eye and a healthy adventure as well.
I ordered a Diamondback Rattlesnake Salad with my steak. All kinds of visions raced through my fertile imagination, I pictured a large mahogany salad bowl with a vicious viper slithering out of it, facing me, rattle shaking, razor-sharp fangs dripping with venom, ready to strike.
When the waiter actually arrived with my salad it was almost anticlimactic. It was served on a large square dish with four quarters. One held tender mixed baby greens topped with strips of braised skinless snake meat, another more greens topped with snake fritters, very much like Japanese Tempura. The fritters were the best, and yes, the white flakey meat was not unlike chicken. But I have always heard that absolutely anything fried tastes good, and I think that is generally true.
Admittedly, I was going for the most exotic and unusual selections. You can, of course, order thoroughly familiar dishes, such as whole Maine Lobster or Giant Breaded Shrimp, just as easily.
The Branding Iron Café offers dozens of fine meal selections, but again I zeroed in on what I couldn’t get at home, or elsewhere.
I have loved Indian fry bread from the moment I sunk my Chicano teeth into my first piece at a Native American Pow Wow many years ago. But I could only find it at other Pow Wows and fairs, no restaurant I could locate served it.
Until now. The Branding Iron serves fry bread with every meal. Almost as soon as you sit down your server arrives with a basket full of still warm fry bread with condiments: fresh comb honey, powdered white sugar and freshly grated cinnamon, on the side. But even naked fry bread is a dream come true. This particular fry bread is as small as a corn tortilla, about the same diameter as a saucer, fluffy as a cloud and without a single trace of oil, or grease. They are made the age-old way in a cast iron pot, one at a time. I liked mine smeared with strawberry jam, but they are also great to scoop up refried beans, and guacamole or meat with.
But the crowning glory of native cuisine has to be the fry bread taco, what we might recognize as a tostada, or open-faced sandwich.
Once again, I was introduced to this lovely dish at Pow Wows across the Golden State. But always the meat was ground beef. In the Barona version lean chopped steak tops the dinner plate-size fry bread followed by heaps of crisp shredded iceberg lettuce, finely grated cheese, sour cream, fresh mashed guacamole and tomatoes.
Another popular dish is the empanada, or meat turnover, made from a fry bread casing folded over the chopped steak.
Native cuisine is a bargain! I paid $7.50 for a plate of two huge empanadas with rice and refried beans topped with cheese on the side.
Same price for the fry bread taco, which was my favorite, I could eat one everyday.
The only thing I don’t understand is why the Pilgrims didn’t incorporate fry bread into Thanksgiving. Sure beats turkey!
There’s a day spa, AmBience, on the seventh floor of the 400-room hotel. My favorite treatment was my facial with Jaclyn. I was very pleased with the facial and the massage she gave my upper torso while her delicately applied multi- vitamin masque was exfoliating my face.
There’s plenty to keep you busy for a day trip, or a weekend. The Barona Valley Museum is small, but free and very well presented, and just a mile up the road from the casino.
Since the museum is part of a cultural complex including a recreational facility you get to enjoy native children playing basketball and other sports. You see a living culture and society rather than just artifacts from a bygone era up on a shelf.
The sprawling 18-hole golf course is gorgeous. Barona Valley is a gorgeous hunk of land studded with old growth oaks and other fine trees. The gaming facilities first class, and unlike some other reservations that come to mind, Barona Valley is green and alive.
But for me the introduction to the native culture and cuisine was the greatest draw.
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Barona Valley Ranch Fry Bread
* 10 lb. All Purpose Flour
* 2.25 oz. Baking Powder
* 1 oz. Salt 4.25 oz. Shortening
* 7 Hot Water
Mix the salt and baking powder with the flour. Cut the shortening into the flour mixture until well blended. Place all into the spiral mixer and add the water slowly to form the dough. Mix gently for several minutes and check for dough feel. Remove from the mixer and place on the bench, divide the dough into 4 small rounds and knead until firm. Place under wet towels and let rest. For the fry bread break off 2 ounce pieces and roll round and flat to cook in hot oil at 500 degrees for several seconds on each side. The finished product should be soft and light in texture absorbing little to no oil.