When the average Joe gets a craving, he does what he can to find it, or settles for the closest thing. Mark McConnell turned his craving into a business, the Off the Rez food truck, which he co-owns with his girlfriend Cecilia Rickard. Beyond satisfying his initial craving, McConnell's love of barbecue and a fondness for the pow wows he experienced in his youth, led to the reinvention of the fry bread taco, which has had many Capitol Hill partyers betraying their late-night hot dogs. According to McConnell, there'll also be some new menu items to look forward to this summer.
When I was young, we would go to Montana in the summer for a festival called Indian Days. There were a lot of pow wows, rodeos, [and] lots of good food. Early on, my first memories were going back there, visiting family, and getting down on some really good food, and fry bread was one of them. When there'd be a pow wow or festival for Natives, there's going to be fry bread.
What is the feedback you've been getting from Native Americans?
Generally, it's been really good. There's always a couple that get thrown off by the ingredients. Like, instead of salsa and tomatoes on it, we threw pickled onions on top, and it seems like a lot of Natives don't like onions. Some do, but we did some food at the Chief Seattle Club's art walk last Thursday, and I swear, half the Natives did not want onions. That's something that has thrown a lot of people off, but generally, it's good.
There are some people that are afraid to try the chicken, but once they try it, they love it. Certain people are like that. It's not what they're used to having, but once they try it, they like it. It's the same with the barbecue pork. Some of our toppings aren't typical, and a lot of the Natives come out and they just want meat and beef.
What is traditionally paired with fry bread?
Well, there is a lot of sweets, honey, butter, and different jams. Some of our jams are pretty standard. A lot of us just eat fry bread as it is. The fry bread is generally the main course. It'd be like an Indian taco that is huge. It'd weight like a pound. They'd do burgers with fry bread. We do all that as well on request, but it's not very often that people would come order that. We put Velveeta on the burger. That's something that was taken from the reservation. Last night, we had a couple of people from Montana come by and they just wanted Velveeta on the fry bread. That's something you can get back [at the reservation] as well.
You named your blue truck, "Big Chief," after your uncle. Tell us a little bit about what your uncle was like. Was he an inspiration to your food, or more so just an inspiration to you?
He's an inspiration to me. He loved food. He's a big guy. I have a lot of memories of having big barbecues at my grandma's house and all of the family coming over — him being one of them. He's a real loud, outspoken person, and our truck is kind of loud and masculine, so it's fitting. At first, I was going to name the truck after my grandma, but it's not really a girl truck. It just seemed appropriate.
Your brother Mike [McConnell] has been very successful in the restaurant industry. Is there a concern that people will associate you or your business with your brother and his endeavors?
No. I mean, he's been successful, and he's formed really solid brands. Being associated with that couldn't be a bad thing for us. We're — the businesses — are not associated other than, he lets us use his facility and park at Caffe Vita. I don't think of it as a bad thing at all. If anything, he has some great advice. He came to one of our tastings early on, tried it, and gave us some good advice. If anything, it has been helpful.
How long did menu development take, and how did you choose the flavors that would go with fry bread?
We're still kind of changing little things. We had a solid idea quickly. Right when we thought of what kind of food, I targeted the fry bread. I just thought well, we could do the sweet ones as dessert, and then I thought of different chilies. I think Donovan brought in some Chili Verde. I had a Chili Verde that he made before and it was so good. That was kind of an automatic in.
We both loved barbecue, so the pork had to be on there. We collaborated on a menu over six months and basically came up with what we have today. Originally, we were going to do a grilled version of fry bread, but it just never came out and it took too much time. Making our own fry bread from scratch takes so much time, enough work on its own. We cut that out.
Are there any restrictions you faced due to having a food truck kind of business instead of a restaurant?
With the food truck, you have to get everything pre-approved which kind of slows down the process and makes everything kind of a hassle. Where, if you're in a restaurant, if you have something local and fresh, you can just on the fly come up with something. You don't have that flexibility with the truck.
Basically, when we first submitted it, we added some things that we wanted to bring on this summer. So there are more menu items than what we're actually offering now. We want to do something lighter during the summer. We'll still keep some staples, but we'll add some stuff as well.
What is your favorite way to eat fry bread?
That's tough. I'd say for a sweet one, the strawberry jam. It's just classic and just, perfect. For the savory one, maybe the pork. That's our biggest seller. And the burger is really good. I had one last night. I had stopped eating the food for a while, you know. You get sick of it 'cause you're there every day. Last night, I was like, I'm going to try a burger, and it was seriously one of the better burgers I've had. Between burger and fry bread, they're both good.