Are you doing the "I have friends in town and I don't know where to go eat near the Mall" routine for the millionth time? Problem solved: take them to Mitsitam in the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
Before you laugh and say that you're never going to a museum food court, take a closer look. Mitsitam (which means "Let's eat") features cuisine native to different regions of the Americas: Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Meso America, and the Great Plains. In addition to your typical chicken tenders and burgers, you'll find Indian frybread, buffalo steak, cedar plank salmon, roasted chayote squash, and much, much more.
In addition to having the best menu on the Mall, Mitsitam also has the best view. If you're lucky, you can snag a seat next to the flowing waters that surround the museum. This "best kept secret" isn't so secret any longer and it can be pretty crowded and peak times.
Go early (or late), grab a tray and explore.
B likes to try a different item each time we go. This time, he journeyed to the Northwest Coast for cedar plank juniper salmon, stewed blackeyed peas with horseradish root and spinach, and broccoli with pumpkin seed and lavender butter.
I found something I love and I stick to it. The Indian Taco made with buffalo chili smothered over fry bread is my go-to lunch. Part taco salad, part flatbread, all yummy.
Mitsitam also offers aguas frescas (that always look better than they taste) and desserts to cap off your meal. The cafeteria-style and huge variety of options makes it a perfect destination for groups or hard to please visitors. It isn't as cheap as the McDonald's next door in the Air and Space Museum but it is light years better.
Second Thoughts from B
There's so much to love about Mitsitam and only one drawback. The drawback is that you'll pay museum prices. But aside from the cafeteria style operations, it is closer to restaurant quality food. Plus, if you're on the Mall doing the tourist thing, the cafeteria speed is a benefit.
As J said, we eat here often whenever we are playing tour guide. Diverse and unique dining options, a beautiful setting, and a convenient location (almost exclusively given the Mall's lack of options) are all worth making this a regular stop.
But there's one more thing that I think is so unique. Appropriately, it seems that the philosophy is that eating time during a museum visit is not a time to stop learning. Through the wide-range of dishes and the ingredients that are used, visitors can experience a taste of American Indian life. A version catered to the modern palate to be sure, but considering the emphasis on authenticity and the strong ties to native peoples at the museum, it will open more than a few eyes (and mouths). Over the course of many meals I've had, I can say that each time I've enjoyed something that was foreign to me. In fact, my goal is usually to find something I've never heard of (and can't pronounce) and I've yet to leave disappointed.