The words “historic restaurant” almost always pulls me to a stop and that was true last week when I was driving down US-89 about an hour north of Flagstone and saw the sign for the Cameron Trading Post in Cameron, Arizona, a small town seemingly consisting of a gas station, Burger King and laundromat.
Everyone with me always groans when I start reading the long details about the history of a place and I have to admit that old doesn’t always mean good but this time I lucked out.
The trading post, located on a high plateau at an elevation of over 4000-feet, opened in 1916, five years after a suspension bridge, at the time the longest bridge west of the Mississippi and now the oldest in the state, was built spanning the Little Colorado River where it streams into the Grand Canyon.
This is Navajo land (indeed, the Navajo name for Cameron is Naʼníʼá Hasání) and the elegant restaurant reflects that. The menu features not only American and Mexican dishes but also Navajo cuisine, some with a fancy twist including prickly pear French toast and milk shakes as well as staples like green chile stew, Navajo tacos, Navajo beef stew and Yah-Ahtay chile (ground sirloin, pinto beans, red chile and spices) to name just a few.
The spacious restaurant has quality Native American art and rugs on the walls, antique tin ceilings, rich wood cabinetry and a fireplace large enough to cook on. The large windows overlook a sandstone garden brimming with honeysuckle, hollyhocks, chrysanthemums, roses and daisies and views of the gorge.
Our waiter tells us it was truly a trading post back in the early 1900s when the Navajo and Hopi who lived on the surrounding land arrived on horse-drawn wagons to barter their wool, blankets and farm animals in exchange for dry goods. Later, as roads improved and tourism travel took hold, its location close to the entrance of the Grand Canyon brought more visitors who stayed in post’s hotel.
There is, of course, a gift shop but it doesn’t just sell trinkets. Instead there’s high quality Navajo and Hopi arts and crafts including hand woven Navajo rugs, Indian baskets, Hopi kachinas, Pueblo pottery, paintings, jewelry and ceramics as well. I was particularly intrigued by a cow’s skull inlaid with pieces of a type of turquois once mined in Arizona but now almost impossible to find. But I figured, it was one of those things that just wouldn’t fit in with my condo’s décor.
If you enjoyed the prickly pear dishes served at the restaurant, you can pick up jars of the jelly, syrup and tea to take home. If you love fry bread (and I certainly do like the puffy discs of fried dough that for the tacos is topped with meat, beans and cheese), you can buy up to 20-pound bags of Blue Bird Flour which Navajos use to make fry bread.
1 medium sweet yellow onion, diced
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pound lean ground beef
1 (8 ounce) can chili sauce
3/4 teaspoon crushed cumin seeds or ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 (approx.15 oz) cans pinto beans, drained
6 pieces Navajo fry bread
2-3 cups shredded lettuce
2-3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
2 large tomatoes cut into wedges
1 large green chile, diced
In a large skillet, sauté onion in olive oil until golden brown.
Add beef and brown. Add chili sauce, cumin, garlic powder, red pepper flakes and salt.
Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
When done, gently stir beans into meat mixture to and heat. Spread mixture over top of fry bread. Top with lettuce, cheese, tomato wedges and green chiles.
Ingredients for Fry Bread:
6 cups un-sifted flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 cup instant non-fat dry milk
2 3/4 cups lukewarm water
Lard or shortening for frying
Combine flour, salt, baking powder and dry milk in a bowl. Add enough lukewarm water to make a soft dough.
Knead thoroughly. Pinch off a ball of dough about the size of a large egg. Shape it round and flat with a small hole in the middle. Work it back and forth from one hand to the other to make it thinner and thinner. Stretch gradually to a diameter of about nine inches.
Heat fat at least an inch deep in a heavy iron skillet. Drop thin rounds of dough into hot fat and fry to a light brown on one side. Then turn and fry other side. As it fries, the bread puffs up and becomes light. Drain each piece on paper to
Makes about 18 to 24 pieces, about nine inches across.
For more information, visit camerontradingpost.com