With its fine-dining expression of Native American ingredients, Kai at Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass in the East Valley deservedly makes all manner of “best” lists. It’s worth visiting, again and again. But don’t stop there.
Drive a few hours northeast to Whiteriver, the largest settlement of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Navajo County. There, operating out of a disused gas station, is Café Gozhóó (5624 N. First St., Whiteriver, 928-338-1010, cafegozhoo.com). White Mountain Apache and Diné chef Nephi Craig – a James Beard Award 2023 semifinalist and alumnus of the late Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician – runs the kitchen at this bright, casual spot, incorporating Native ingredients like corn, beans, squash, chocolate and chiles into accessible and affordable, yet thoughtfully conceived and plated, dishes like sandwiches, burritos and salads ($6-$9) for the community and visitors. But it’s even more than a cute spot to learn about Indigenous foodways while sampling their bounty.
“The whole point is that this is a place that supports recovery, supports people’s sobriety,” Craig says. He opened the eatery in October 2021 with the Rainbow Treatment Center as a hands-on facility for its Working to Wellness program, providing folks in recovery with career skills and community. For Craig, it’s personal. “I got sober in 2011,” he says. “It’s really fortunate that this project has happened, and I get to distill all those experiences and create this combination of health, vocational training, Native foods and Apache-ness here in the kitchen… I hold that with a lot of respect and humility.”
And humor. While Café Gozhóó’s goals of relapse prevention, Indigenous reclamation and self-empowerment, and education about Native foodways are lofty, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The bestselling Quit Cold Turkey sandwich is a tongue-in-cheek reference to recovery. Tha Show Guy sandwich – a meat- and cheese-loaded riff on Italian delis’ The Wiseguy – is named after the Apache slang for a person who’s “kind of arrogant, ignorant, a loud-mouth… like you’re ‘acting show,’ you know?” Craig says. “That’s a big part of our culture, our sense of humor.”
Some dishes are more straightforward. “Our Three Sisters salad, that’s our kind of nod to companion planting, always using corn, beans and squash,” he says of the classic crop trio, here showcased in a salad with seasonal vegetables, mixed greens, hominy and heirloom beans (cranberry and Anasazi during our visit) with avocado crema and chile-lime vinaigrette. It’s one of the tastiest and most satiating vegan salads we’ve had. Rotating vegetables for the homemade-ranch-drizzled Apache Farm steak salad come from Ndée Bikíyaa just down the road. Craig and his staff forage for wild tea, acorns and sumac berries, ingredients he grew up with in Whiteriver and Window Rock.
“We grow up eating our traditional foods and doing things you hear in stories, you see in ceremonies, you hear in songs. In the back of my mind, I wanted to do something like that,” he says. “I’ve always wondered how and if it would ever be possible to be able to come home and do something like this. But it’s here, and this is what it looks like. I used to travel the world in search of the secret, in search of X, Y and Z, but I had to come home to create it.”