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Tenaya cooks with forked tongue

There's a seminal point reached in life's greatest endeavors -- art, sex, drinking Miller High Life -- where the experience is so profound, so touching on so many levels, it becomes transcendent. The act and the actor become one, and the interplay dissolves into something greater than the sum of its parts. For these rare and blissful moments, feeble expressions have been coined in an attempt to convey the profundity -- terms like "magnum opus," "Champagne of beers," and "banged his/her lights out."

The same is true of theme restaurants. There is that point where the theme expresses itself so succinctly, with such profound subtlety, it ceases to be a theme. It becomes...well, you're not exactly sure what it becomes, and this compelling mystery just adds to the beauty, driving the experience deeper into your soul.

That is what Tenaya aims for. What is Tenaya? "Tenaya is a unique Native American theme restaurant located in the Las Colinas Development, Irving, Texas," explains the press release. So right off the bat, Tenaya throws a compelling paradox at you: a lump of Native American culture settled in a fabricated corporate community sewn together with an aborted monorail system.

What? No dried rabbit on a stick? Tenaya's Indian touches are all theme, no food.
Jon Lagow
What? No dried rabbit on a stick? Tenaya's Indian touches are all theme, no food.

Details

Monday-Friday:
11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday:
11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday:
11 a.m.-8 p.m.

(972) 550-1122

$$-$$$

525 Meadow Creek Drive, Irving

According to the menu, Tenaya was named for a descendent of the Miwok Indians and the last great chief of the Yosemites. These Indians considered the abundance and richness of the land a gift from the spirits. "Every element, animate and inanimate, spoke if listened to and delivered messages of harmony inherent in life," the menu elaborates. "Tenaya's legacy and that of his ancestors' lives, breathes, and blows in the Pohono of Kisskissa Meadow..."

Honoring the Miwoks' "eyes wise, souls open, and ears understanding," Tenaya has a Pohono room with audiovisual equipment, private phone lines, and a patio. There's also the semiprivate Kisskissa room, which invites further Miwok reflection. And the Fun Room has plush leather couches and chairs and an Indian rifle in a glass case above a large gas fireplace. On one Sunday afternoon, with an outside temperature pushing 95 degrees, long tongues of flame flared from those gas jets.

But it's in the menu where Tenaya really becomes transcendent. Everything is at once Native American, and New American. The Native American influence becomes a ghostly appliqué, like a temporary tattoo. There are arrowheads and salsa (chips and salsa), Yosemite shrimp, bow and arrow rib eye, and Miwok chicken -- chicken breast, fresh mushrooms, and linguine. Linguine?

Sometimes potent symbolism is so elusive, it becomes fathomless to those not sufficiently prepared to enter a transcendent state. Ponder this. There is no buffalo, cattail pollen flapjacks, wild rice, or venison hash on Tenaya's menu. But there is an exuberantly fresh Cobb salad ($9.95), and a classic Caesar ($6.95), a thing with no Worcestershire, lemon, anchovy, or garlic flavors peeking through. Yet it still managed to sneak hints of mayo onto the palate through its tepid creamy dressing. You'll also find onion rings ($3.95), thin, crisp tangles of thyme-infused batter coating onion threads just enough to let the sweetness seep out.

Tenaya puffs ($6.95) -- a mixture of cream sauce, smoked chicken, cheese, and mushrooms wrapped in a delicate pastry and baked -- challenge the spirit. Because no matter how hard you listen, no matter how long you wait for messages of harmony or live, breathe, and blow in the Pohono of Kisskissa Meadow, you won't find a fleck of smoked chicken or a speck of flavor.

Still, this leaves the mystery of the linguine and the general conundrum of a Native American-themed restaurant with little, if any Native American influence on the menu. But like the sound of one hand clapping, this riddle demands time, patience, and logic knocked on its ear to understand.

"We've had a little bit of a mix-up there with some people who wanted Indian food," says Vice President of Operations Austin Jourde. "Our food is certainly not American Indian cuisine. I think our food is much better than that. Would you want dried rabbit on a stick and some berries and nuts or acorns?"

Or deer liver fried in porcupine fat? Of course not. You want a bland shrimp po-boy ($8.95) served on fresh-baked bread with lettuce, tomato, and a slathering of rémoulade. But in the spirit of receiving harmonic messages and a Pohono breeze, you don't want the rémoulade to be detectable. Or how about a smokehouse brisket sandwich ($6.95), pulverized meat mush in a sweet sauce with a smoke flavor that's so subtle, you'll wonder whether maybe it hyperventilated in the Kisskissa Meadow? Tenaya does have great fries, though: thin, delicate, crisp, and hot. And they shrewdly don't refer to them as French.

Yet you may be wondering, in the spirit of souls open and ears understanding, how Tenaya's Native American theme manifests itself. "Well, we have some artifacts," explains Jourde. "We have some decor. Sometimes we play Native American music over our sound system. We have lots of portraits, blankets. Some of it is more mainstream stuff you'd see at a Southwestern-type shop."

And just in case this doesn't suffice, Jourde says they even commissioned a bronze sculpture of an Indian maiden named Loyia, who just happens to be Tenaya's wife. She stands in the lobby carrying a basket full of acorns.

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