Strike While the Oil is Hot

Trina Jae’s Navajo Frybread pop-up at CHOMP food hall calls your name

Though it took several attempts to find it open, mostly because I just kind of didn’t ask anyone about the hours for some strange reason, Trina Jae’s Navajo Frybread pop-up at CHOMP food hall (505 Cerrillos Road) proved to have one of the most delicious versions of the Navajo taco I’ve ever eaten—and believe me, I’ve eaten my fair share of Navajo tacos.

I suggest getting your own while the getting’s good, too, as proprietor Trina Jae Reid (Diné Asdzáán, Áshįįhí Tódích’ii’nii Clans) opened the pop-up in late-January and will only serve up her special proprietary recipe on Sunday, Feb. 18 for lunch and dinner, then again from Friday, Feb. 23-Sunday Feb. 25. I know, I know—that’s a brief window, but consider this recommendation a real better-to-have-loved-and-lost thing. In other words, I kind of need everyone to get obsessed with me right now, even if they know the pop-up is fleeting, because maybe that will convince Reid to keep on popping up at CHOMP or elsewhere down the road.

Reid’s business currently operates from the CHOMP stall that usually houses Chef Nath’s Inspired Khmer Cuisine. (Nath will return after visiting friends and family at home in Cambodia, so don’t worry). Reid nonetheless stands as a frybread magician and wildly positive ray of sunshine in the local food world—fleeting or not. In fact, should we all drop whatever we’re doing to have frybread this weekend? Probably.

Recipes for frybread, or dah dinííghaazh in the Diné language, according to Reid, can vary from community to community. For her part, she says, being born in Tuba City, Arizona, and growing up in Rocky Ridge/Dinnebito on the Navajo Nation informs her specific style. At her pop-up, she uses a simple recipe she has developed over the years—flour, baking powder and salt, though she won’t specify in what ratios—not to mention hand techniques rather than tools like rolling pins, along with family know-how and, in a 100% earnest way, love.

“I wasn’t really so much taught how to make bread,” Reid explains, “because I was born in the ‘70s and grew up in the ‘80s, and times were different. No one would be like, ‘Hey, let me teach you.’ If you wanted to learn, you had to watch it and try it and master it.”

Watch and master it, she did. Reid is the eldest daughter in her family and counts six brothers and sisters. Because of her place in the offspring lineup, she says, she was expected to take on certain duties, cooking for her siblings among them. Frybread was often on the menu. Growing up observing her mother, or shimá, maternal grandmother, or shimásáni, and paternal grandmother, or shinálí, was half the battle in learning. The rest, she says, was working out her own style and technique over time.

“It’s kind of like pizza dough,” she explains. “You see those people throwing it and it looks easy, but it’s not—that’s skill.”

She’s right. Sometimes things that look simple are actually the culmination of years of practice and dedication. On the day I visited Trina Jae’s with SFR art director Anson Stevens-Bollen in tow, for example, we watched her flapping little balls of dough between her hands to hit the proper shape, thickness and size. She then kneaded and stretched and shaped them by hand until they met her standards, and all the while she was laughing and making conversation and explaining her frybread ethos: It needs to be light and airy; it needs to be a little crispy at the edges; it needs to hold up under the beans, beef, chile, lettuce and tomato that come on a Navajo taco.

Like the frybread itself, Reid handles those ingredients expertly. And like the frybread, she won’t disclose the precise seasonings she likes to use. She does note all her ingredients are sourced locally, and you can tell in the freshness of each taco. The tenderness and flavor of the beef and beans, for example, contrasts the crunch of the lettuce and the meat of the tomatoes so well. The nuanced flavor of the still-hot bread tastes almost like a savory donut with just enough salt. I’ve eaten at Trina Jae’s twice now, and in both cases I couldn’t help but tear into the taco like a bear who came across a cooler full of sandwiches.

Maybe it’s about the subtle red chile?

“It’s more about flavor than spiciness,” Reid says.

Maybe it’s about a food artisan caring enough to make something well?

“It’s important to include the love and the spiritual,” she says. “People can taste that.”

So where’s she been all our lives? Reid has traveled to Santa Fe annually since 2003 to model clothing and jewelry for artists showing at Indian Market. She even moved here temporarily last August, though she’s not sure she’s ready to call it home full time.

“It’s a beautiful place to visit, but I’ll always be an Arizona girl,” she says, noting CHOMP owner Ken Joseph “has told me I’ll always be welcome, though, which is such a nice opportunity.”

Customers have responded well, Reid says. Some have never heard of Navajo tacos or even frybread itself. They’ve since become converts. Others, she says, have remarked that her frybread recipe reminds them of home.

“One person said, ‘You transported me back to the Navajo Nation, so thank you for that,’” Reid tells SFR. “Every single person I’ve met has been so stoked.”

At $15 per taco and $7 per frybread with honey, you’d kind of have to be stoked. Are those prices perhaps a little more than you’d think? Maybe so. But food costs are up across the board—just ask any McDonald’s fan you know—and it’s important to remember that you’re not just paying for the food at Trina Jae’s, but for years of practice and trial and error; for years spent developing a particular recipe; for generational tradition. You’re paying for expertise, and in a world where more Indigenous chefs are hitting the mainstream—think Ray Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo) or Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart (Oglala Lakota)—that expertise remains part of a premium experience. Plus, if you’re willing to ask, Reid is willing to tell you almost anything about frybread.

“It feels very empowering to educate people,” she says. “And everything I do is with purpose and good intention…I’m passionate about it.”

In the not-so-distant future, Reid adds, that passion could morph into private events, more pop-ups or even catering gigs. For now, though, she’s focused on getting through the rest of February and serving up as many tacos and frybread orders as possible.

“It’s going to be hard to say, ‘See you later!’” she says.

Get the latest on Trina Jae’s Navajo Tacos by following @trina_jae_ on Instagram.

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