For many Phoenicians, fry bread is an indulgence enjoyed a few times a year at an event like the Arizona State Fair or the Heard Museum’s annual hoop dance championship. For the region’s indigenous peoples, the food has a more prominent and complicated place in their heritage as an adaptation originally created from surplus commodities provided to tribes, often after forced relocation. For those who crave fry bread at any time, it can be found throughout the year at the Fry Bread House in central Phoenix.
The Fry Bread House, a native-owned business, has had a few different homes during its history, moving multiple times between the Melrose District along 7th Avenue and Indian School Road a mile or so to the east. The current location is situated five blocks south of the 7th Avenue / Camelback light rail station; however, when the weather is pleasant, it may be more worthwhile to alight from the train at Campbell/Central and then walk or bike along the Grand Canal path.
The Fry Bread House’s current location is indeed a house, or at least it looks as though it once was. It’s a standalone structure at the corner of 7th Avenue and Hazelwood, just a block north of the canal. A bike rack is found at the front door facing Hazelwood; that door is currently closed due to a take-out arrangement maintained from the side door facing the parking lot. Likewise, the two small dining rooms, simply decorated but full of natural light, are temporarily closed due to public health concerns.
Currently, orders can be placed using menus posted outside in the parking lot. In ordinary times, the same boards are placed near the counter, and customers form a line defined by a somewhat artistic system of ropes to place their order. A cautionary sign notes that the ropes have sometimes been a temptation for children, and maybe even a few adults, to play on and warns that any kid climbing them will be given Dr. Pepper with green chili and salsa. That slight bit of sass aside, the Fry Bread House is well suited to family dining.
The signature dish is, of course, fry bread. For those who haven’t tried it, fry bread is essentially what its name implies: leavened dough made with white flour cooked in oil or lard until it becomes a puffy disc ready to be topped with beans, meat, cheese, or a combination of all those elements. If the bread is folded and the filled, the result is a taco. The options begin with an “Indian taco,” stuffed with refried pinto beans, shredded cheese, and iceberg lettuce an expand from there to include meat fillings of red and green chili, ground beef, and chorizo.
The green chili is definitely spicier than the red. With the salsas offered as accompaniments, the opposite is true. The green has a moderate burn, but the red is downright fiery. Besides the fry bread tacos, there’s also something called the “Joedd Special” in which an unadorned piece of fresh fry bread is paired with a 12-ounce container of stew. Both the red and green chilies are option, but there are milder choices such as a hearty vegetable beef stew and a lighter hominy soup. Menudo is an added choice on weekends.
As an alternative to fry bread, there is also a flat bread known as “chemuth,” essentially a thick tortilla. A chemuth can be wrapped around any of the fry bread toppings to create a burro or fashions into the base of a cheese crisp. Nothing at the Fry Bread House could really be described as light eating, but the “Indian Basket” is the restaurant’s version of a taco salad with a choice of meat, whole beans, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, green onions, and sour cream all sitting on top of a crisped chemuth.
The Fry Bread House also serves comforting tamales in both red chili beef and green chili chicken varieties. These tamales are complex in their structure with myriad layers of masa and corn husk to be found as one delves deeper. Tostadas and tacos made from corn tortillas are also available. At the counter, specials, many of them long-running ones, are announced on small chalkboards. A squash burro is a meatless entree that incorporates a traditional food that predates U.S. government rations.
Kokoji is a perpetual special with a foundation of crisp masa cakes topped with red or green chili, diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and melted cheese. There’s even a featured hamburger in which a piece of fry bread replaces the usual bun containing the meat. One more use of fry bread not to be overlooked is the restaurant’s dessert menu. A puffy piece of fry bread can be topped with something as simple as powdered sugar or honey or combinations such as chocolate syrup and butter or cinnamon and sugar.
The Fry Bread house serves lunch and early dinner with a closing time of 8 or 9 most nights. As might therefore be expected, there’s no liquor license. Most items are served on paper plates or in disposable bowls, making the food suitable for take-out. As modest as those attributes are, they didn’t stop the restaurant from winning a James Beard Award 2012. Having already made a journey from an adaptive use of rationed commodities to a festival favorite, fry bread is celebrated and taken to its next level on 7th Avenue.
4545 N 7th Ave., Phoenix AZ 85013
7th Avenue / Camelback Station