By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Hats off to Uncle Mike and The Chuckwagon
Restaurants continue to open and close at the pace of new network TV series. Café dynamics in Des Moines have been considerably influenced by catering companies expanding into the restaurant business and contracting from that double duty. Catering facilitates restaurant ownership for several reasons. Bankers appreciate track records that demonstrate a business can absorb basic costs (caterers in Des Moines average around $15,000 a year just for licenses, insurance and inspections) and still show a profit; Catering builds a niche clientele; Brick and mortar kitchens often help catering businesses expand.
It's never easy, though, as competition is brutal in Des Moines. I found 184 local caterers in the yellow pages. Some of the best (Taste! to Go, Tres Hermanos) tried running restaurants in addition to catering but gave that up when the catering side of their business grew faster than the other side. Other top caterers (Smokey D's, Flying Mango, Fat Tuesday, La Rosa) successfully expanded both sides of their businesses. Hardly a month goes by that somebody doesn't get into, or out of, one side or the other.
After 17 years of catering, Mike Bell is the latest to make the leap into sit down restaurant proprietorship. He opened Uncle Mike's BBQ & Soul Cuisine in an heirloom treasure known as the Wherry Block, where Millie Carr's Something Good Soul Food gave up last year after surviving four years and a flood. Bell's menu emphasized the barbecue side of soul. Pulled pork, the best of the smoked items I sampled, was moist and showed a lovely smoke ring. Smoked ribs and chicken (Friday and Saturday only) both delivered textures as much of grilled as smoked meats. Beef brisket was utterly dry and incorrectly sliced with — rather than across — the grain.
Other soulful foods were also inconsistent. Superb catfish were deep fried in a coarsely ground cornmeal that lent Southern style crunchiness. Chicken wings were deep-fried tender and crisp in a flour batter. Hot links included natural casing. Hoppin' John delivered an unusual recipe that added lots of canned corn to black eye peas and rice, but no pepper relish. Collards had the soggy texture of greens overcooked in plain water. French fries were crinkle cut. Sweet potato pie tasted of homemade filling in uninspired crust.
"Self service" was quite literally observed. On one occasion, each of five items ordered was called out one at a time. Counter help sat and watched a loud TV, as I continually bounced up and down from my table to the counter and back.
In the old Tres Hermanos venue, Chuck Scott runs The Chuckwagon sandwich shop with an infectious smile and enthusiasm. His simple menu offered homemade versions of subway style sandwiches. For instance, Scott bakes roast beef rare and medium rare — try finding that at a hoagie chain. Turkey breast had been marinated in honey and smoked. Ham was a prepared product. Sides included mayo-based potato salad and excellent vinegar-based coleslaw. Bacon wrapped chicken legs, homemade pretzels and Italian roast beef sandwiches with homemade jardinière were house specialties. Natural casing hot dogs and brats, nachos and rice crispies rounded out the menu.
Bottom line — Both these new restaurants face big challenges to succeed where others have not. Hats off.
Former Centro chef Bill Overdyk is now Chef de Cuisine at Gateway Market, promising more integration between its café and grocery store… Former Lucca chef Derek Eidson, back from Indianapolis, replaced Overdyk at Centro… Former Nana's owner Sam Campero is the new manager at Mezzodi's… Leopold Center's Associate Director Rich Pirog is leaving to take a similar position at Michigan State University. CV
Excellent catfish at Uncle Mike's BBQ & Comfort Cuisine, 1610 Sixth Ave., 244-6553. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Chuckwagon, 2460 S.W. Ninth St. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.