If you’ve ever driven down Pearl Street, you’ve likely spotted the sign: a large neon bison, frozen mid-stride, its lit-up legs giving the impression of an endless gallop. Inside, the theme continues in full force; there are books about bison under glass by the cash register, pictures of bison on the walls, and beautifully painted portraits of various sizes, all depicting the animals in moments of action or repose. The visuals are more than a gimmick, because the restaurant in question, Tatanka Take-Out, uses buffalo as its main ingredient in everything from sausage and chili to burritos and soup.
Although bison meat has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially on the health-food circuit, Tatanka has been using it for two decades – and it’s not innovating so much as borrowing from the indigenous roots of the food.
Tatanka is currently run by Nathan Thomas, who took over in 2013. But it’s been around since the late 1990s, when Rick Hammond and Cindy Weiss opened the original version on Vashon Island. The restaurant’s unique culinary feature came from family roots; Hammond’s father operated a bison ranch in Northern California for many years, and this background was what inspired their venture into alternative meat. After many years on the island, Weiss and Hammond moved to the current location on Pearl Street, where they continued serving up dishes with their signature animal.
Thomas has worked in the restaurant industry since 1997, and has cooked a broad variety of dishes. But once he tried bison, he was hooked, and his passion for sharing the food with others powers his work to this day.
“We’re about offering a healthy alternative to beef,” he said. This is a sentiment shared by a variety of grocery stores, eateries and other businesses, which now offer bison burgers just as readily as their traditional cow counterparts. The comparison is hard to miss; cows and bison are both large herbivores, known for roaming wide ranges in massive herds. But the burgers they produce are vastly different. Thomas outlined some of the biggest benefits of bison meat, which include that it is high in protein, low in fat and full of omega-3s. It’s also, he points out, a truly American food.
Bison have been used for their meat and fur since the very earliest days of human habitation in North America. Native American tribes all across the Great Plains region utilized buffalo for food, clothing and shelter, and the animals were hunted en masse by European settlers. Although the herds never went away entirely, their numbers decreased significantly over the decades, until over-hunting put them at risk of extinction altogether. In the 20th century, donations from public institutions and private collections helped bring the bison back, and while they are not at the numbers they once were, herds can still be seen in many parts of their historical range.
As their culinary potential gains renewed notice, bison have had something of a renaissance. Indeed, many of the bison populations outside of national parks and wildlife preserves reside on ranches, where they are raised for food. Today, it’s not unusual to see buffalo jerky in the snack aisle, right next to the beef and turkey options. Hammond, Weiss and Thomas have all embraced this as part of their business model. Indeed, the sign out front advertises the business as serving “America’s Original Health Food,” and the name itself comes from the Lakota Sioux word for “bison.”
In addition to their health benefits, Thomas said that he finds buffalo intriguing compared to their bovine counterparts. “There’s just something wild about them,” he explained.
While the restaurant’s aesthetic and offerings have their roots in the Great Plains, Tatanka is also a decidedly local establishment. Thomas said that since he started running the business, “I know a lot more people than I used to,” and that “It’s exciting to open people’s eyes to bison.” He added that many customers come in out of curiosity after years of driving by the sign, and that the restaurant hosts a variety of devoted regulars.
Recently, an estate executor from Vashon Island stopped in to inform Thomas that one of those long-time customers had passed away, and had specified in his will that the restaurant should be gifted a buffalo portrait that he had in his home. As he told the story, Thomas immediately remembered the man not just by his name, but by his usual order, with all of its specific details and substitutions. It’s the sort of connection that can only be forged at small, community-oriented businesses. Although Thomas said that he would consider expanding in the future, he is also determined to run the business according to his own ethics, even if it means shirking normal money-makers like selling liquor.
“We’re not here to get rich if it doesn’t fit our values,” he explained.
In the meantime, Thomas and his employees will keep on serving filling, diner-style food and paying homage to a Western icon.