By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Saints serves the masses
Thirty years ago, the Des Moines sports bar evolved thanks to cross breeding two new technologies (satellite dishes and big screen televisions) with a cultural innovation (fantasy football). The former gave average sports fans a reason to leave home to watch games. The latter expanded the pool of concerned gamblers beyond illegal limits. First, bar and dance club owners discovered they could draw big enthusiastic crowds for Hawkeye and NFL games. They usually obscured their sports identity at other times, for fear of driving women away. Francie’s upgraded the genre with a scratch kitchen and family ambience. Skybox brought in a Culinary Institute of America chef and upped the level of the food, apparently to untenable heights — it lasted less than a year.
During the last decade, sports bars spawned several generations of offspring. Their menus became as similar and boring as strategies in the last five minutes of a basketball game. So how does a new place distinguish itself from the pack? I may have found a surprisingly old fashioned answer at Saints Pub and Patio, a place that caught my interest because their parking lot was so consistently full. On recent occasions, Saints fans filled every table while another new place on the same intersection struggled to entice customers. Saints also appeared to draw diverse age demographics, including families. That’s a rare thing for sports bars. Maybe the design provides some explanation for their success. High def, big screen TVs were hung in sets of three in six different sections, providing sight lines to as many games as even a compulsive gambler can watch simultaneously. Yet all were muted in favor of a light jazz/pop/rock sound track.
For the most part, the menu was standard sports bar fare. Fried finger food included chicken wings and tenders, mushrooms, calamari, shrimp, French fries, sweet potato fries, Cajun onion rings, pork tenderloins, cod and crab cakes. The tenders, onion rings and pork tenderloins ranked above average with good fresh breading and golden fried attention. French fries were freshly hand cut. The heavily breaded and inconsistently cooked cod, and the binder-heavy crab cakes ranked below average. A pasty “house special” potato leek soup featured a “cream stock” with heavy roux. Salads brought fresh greens for this time of year and a pear and goat cheese salad paid homage to gods of trends. Among several dips, a chipotle soared with genuine smoked pepper flavor. Among sandwiches, a reuben impressed with good corned beef and marbled rye bread. The burger menu dropped the meaningless name “Black Angus” seven times but my burger seemed short on flavor. Chicken jerk egg rolls and fish tacos both included smartly salted cabbage slaw. A $15 ribeye dinner delivered an extraordinary value plus fresh pico de gallo. My servings were consistently large.
The key to Saints popularity is its unusually good service. Plates were presented with attention to garnish and with a little flair to boot. Bartenders moved around the dining room taking care of problems that “managers” ignore in many other places. TVs were quickly readjusted on request. The wine list was strong in the moderately priced and by-the-glass arenas. I felt that strangers were given the same friendly treatment usually reserved for regulars. Not that everything was perfect. The menu offered more add-on charges than come with a new pair of glasses. Saints’ Web site advertised daily specials that were not offered at the store.
Workers prepared the old Skybox venue on Eighth Street for a Raul’s store… Wellman’s Pub is shooting for a mid-April opening in Ponderosa Villages by West Glen, with personnel and menu coming from Skybox… Losing ground to real mayonnaise, Miracle Whip upped its advertising budget from $47,000 to $15 million, including a Lady Gaga tie-in. CV
A slider trio at Saints Pub & Patio, 265 50th St., West Des Moines, 440-4703. The kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily.