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Food Dude

Jan 19 , 2012
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Cooper’s on Fifth comforts

By Jim Duncan

A New York strip dinner is just $15 at Cooper’s on Fifth, 227 Fifth St., West Des Moines, 255-9895. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. to close.

Small restaurants indicate the future. It’s always been that way in Europe and Japan. The New York Times recently reported that the hottest restaurant in Paris this year has just 16 seats. Jim Lark, owner of Michigan’s most famous restaurant, explained why he draws the line at 50 guests. “Once you have more than 50, bad things happen, not the least of which is that the actual cooking is no longer done by the real talent — your chef and sous chef.”

Des Moines’ restaurant scene was transformed by small, chef-driven cafés (Under 50’s) in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Butch’s Hollywood Bistro, Bistro 43, Corner Café, South Union Bread Café and Basil Prosperi taught the city to appreciate California and European style fare in tiny stores. Café di Scala began as a stall at Metro Market. Taste of Thailand, Soul Africa and original versions of La Tapatia and A Dong revolutionized the way ethnic foods were presented here in similarly small cafés. The last decade conspired against Under 50’s here. Zealous regulations and inflation raised the fixed costs of overhead (grease traps, equipment, permits, licenses, inspection compliance, insurance, energy, etc.) so much that it became much easier for larger places to get approved for loans. The mortality rate for Under 50’s rose faster than that of large places, too. Today it takes brave souls to open a small café.

Ryan and Kara Cooper and Randy Hagen did that last November in one of the best Under 50 venues in town. Best known as Simo’s Cafisto and most recently known as Accordion, their charming 44-seat café in Valley Junction never looked better. It’s been given a superb makeover by Cooper’s uncle Bob. That’s Bob Cooper, whose woodworking style distinguishes the new World Food Prize building, the Hotel Pattee and several handsome Des Moines restaurants such as Mezzodi’s, 801 Steak & Chop House, Embassy Club and Trostel’s Greenbriar. Bob built a new bar here with his trademark inlays. It is the focus of the single room.

Cooper’s kitchen produces comfort food. I’d call it diner food except that implies breakfast and Cooper’s is only open evenings and Sunday afternoons with an abbreviated menu. Among its comforting aspects were prices that ranged $11 - $18 for entrees (including salads and fresh vegetables), $9 - $10 for sandwiches (with sides), $4 - $10 for soups and salads, and $7 - $9 for appetizers. In that latter category, pulled pork nachos delivered delightfully puffy, freshly fried flour tortillas, with three cheeses, black bean relish and wasabi cream. Pulled pork egg rolls may not rock the world like those that Smokey D’s introduced recently, but they delivered more wasabi cream, black bean relish and pulled pork with a different starch. Panko breaded zucchini strips were the least complicated and most appreciated appetizer.

Chicken tortilla soup was a hit with multiple flavors and plenty of heat. A Cuban sandwich was faithfully grilled on Cuban bread and served with more pulled pork plus ham, pickles, grainy mustard and melted Swiss. Half pound burgers had good sears — the menu even offers “Pittsburgh style,” the ultimate in searing. Can’t remember when I last enjoyed a New York strip dinner that cost just $15. Cooper’s version had good sear and was paired well with grilled onion rings, roasted peppers and buttered baby potatoes. Cajun meatloaf was my favorite dish with crisp edge, tender center and expert spicing. Short ribs, mac and cheese, Swiss steak Marsala and a seafood ravioli dish were also featured on a sensible 20-item menu.

Side Dishes

Chicago style Italian kitchens are in the works at both Gas Lamp and The Library, with Chicago Italian beef, Chicago dogs, sausage and meatball sandwiches… DMKoreacopia’s next Korean feast will be Jan. 22, $20, 327-9191 or Facebook for details. CV

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