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Food Dude

September 6, 2012
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G. Mig’s 5th Street Pub

By Jim Duncan

Migsie’s burrito with chipotle aioli, sour cream and fresh pico de gallo at G. Mig’s, 128 Fifth St., West Des Moines, 255-4550. Kitchen hours are Sat. - Sun. 8 a.m. - 3 p.m., Tues. - Fri. 11 a.m. - 2 p.m., Sun. - Wed. 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. and Thurs. - Sat. 5 p.m. - 9 p.m.

The bar and grill is an all-American institution doused with romantic lore. Long before fern bars, sports bars and brew pubs were invented, neighborhood bars with short-order grills were where mid-20th century writers like Raymond Chandler, Nelson Algren and Studs Terkle hung their hats and mastered the art of the short sentence. Robert Sherwood invented film noir in one. O. Henry found character inspirations in others. These days the term has been hijacked by big restaurants with full kitchens (Splash Seafood Bar and Grill) and even by giant chains (Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar), as if the term alone creates a cozier, more “Cheers”-like ambiance. Noir songwriter Tom Waits once advised his audience to beware of any place that spelled “grill” with an “e” on the end.

Today most authentic bar-and-grills in Iowa don’t even call themselves that. In many Iowa small towns, bars simply added grills after the town lost its last café. Now they often represent the only prepared food option next to convenience stores. In the Des Moines metro, no other restaurant genre has such peculiar demographics. Our east side is loaded with wonderful, old fashioned bar-and-grills such as East 14th Street Pub, Gerri’s Tavern, Norwood Inn, Main Gate Bar and Grill, East 25th Street Pub and Kelly’s Little Nipper. Many of those open early for breakfast, and all produce some excellent scratch cooking. The south side has its share, too, including Club 2000 and Orlondo’s on Park. The ironically-named Highland Park Country Club has been feeding excellent short-order food to the north side for decades. In the western parts of the metro, the only bar-and-grills where one can imagine Raymond Chandler hanging out are Eastern Europeans joints like Kula, Estrada’s and Euro Bar.

One longtime exception was Giff Wagner’s. That place was a sweet-hearted, surrogate day care center where retirees hung out with the grandkids of working moms. Loyal customers turned out regularly for inexpensive specials like $8 rib eye dinners and $1.25 tacos. Wagner’s death last December was mourned like the end of an era.

Since then the place has been remodeled and renamed G. Mig’s Fifth Street Pub. New wooden floors and furniture have polished the place without much altering to the floor plan or any of the ubiquitous TV screens. Wagner’s famous country-western jukebox had been silenced on my visits. The menu also suggested that the place has been gentrified. There’s still a $10 steak night, but the cheap tacos have been replaced with $8 nachos and quesadillas. It’s hard to imagine a “blood orange olive oil and raspberry balsamic vinegar” salad dressing ever showing up on Giff’s menu. Same thing with “crab” salad sandwiches, although the ones I tried were made with chewy, salty surimi (artificial crab), not crab. Other sandwich options included pastrami, prime rib burgers, beef gyros, buffalo chicken wraps and chicken breast. Pizzas were quite thick and doughy with undercooked crust.

Grill work at breakfast (weekends only) was much better. In fact, the short-order cooks were so efficient and rhythmic that just watching them work was a joy. Migsie’s burrito ($6) was loaded with three eggs, chorizo, hash browns, avocado, cheese and poblanos. It was served with chipotle aioli, sour cream and excellent freshly-made pico de gallo. A traditional breakfast ($5) delivered perfectly-cooked eggs and crispy hash browns with good, thick cut bacon and excellent toast. Gentrification did not cover tableware. Knives, forks, spoons and plates were disposable plastic.

Side Dishes

Niman Ranch’s farmer appreciation dinner this year will be cooked by chefs Tyson Grant (Florida), Charles Kassels (Phoenix), Frederic Morinnequ (Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman), Scott Pampuch (Milwaukee), Jeffrey Surprise (San Antonio) and John Villa (TAO New York). Sept. 8 at Embassy Suites, (641) 579-6594 for reservations. CV

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