Beans and meat wrapped in a tortilla is a taco, but the same ingredients piled on a piece of fry bread qualifies as a sandwich. At least, "sandwich" is how you'll hear folks refer to the Navajo taco, aka Indian taco, despite the "taco" in the name.
I've convinced myself that the defining factor of sandwichness is bread, so I tested the theory at The Fry Bread House in Phoenix. The Navajo taco arrives swaddled like a papoose, the corners of its butcher-paper blanket tenderly knotted at the top. Undo the wrapping, and out springs a frisbee-sized cushion of traditional Navajo fry bread, covered by a bed of refried beans, smooth red salsa, chopped red onions and iceberg lettuce, strips of mild green chiles, and shredded cheddar cheese of the blandest bagged variety. The lack of adornment extends to the Fry Bread House’s décor, with formica tabletops the color of its creamy homemade beans and Styrofoam sodas in two sizes: medium and “chief."
The fry bread is aggressively bread-like, with a flavor somewhere between a thick, gyro-type pita and barely sweetened funnel cake. The fresh, pillowy bread only gets tastier when folded around the filling, deliciously deflating as it soaks up the saucy mess. By the end I am uncomfortably full but perfectly comfortable, I decide, calling this thing a sandwich.
Though there are thousands of sandwich recipes native to the United States, the Navajo taco is a Native American sandwich in different sense. Arizona Republic readers voted the Navajo taco the official state dish in 1995, but neither the fry bread nor the sandwich is any more native to Navajo culture than the shredded cheese on top. Most food historians credit the invention of fry bread to the thousands of Navajo who were forced off their land in the so-called Long Walk to Arizona’s Fort Sumner, where they were incarcerated in 1864. Without corn, the people made fry bread using government rations of white flour, sugar, and lard, and when they were allowed to return to their now government-defined land four years later, the new tradition stuck.
Have you ever tried a Navajo taco?