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Barbecue is as old as smoke, but it’s the hottest new restaurant trend in the metro, reversing a 50-year downward cycle for a tradition that was always geographically challenged in Iowa. South of the “frigid zone,” food was smoked for preservation. Since ice served that purpose here, wood was better used for heating. So the current BBQ revival appeals to our sense of the exotic rather than the nostalgic — smoke houses, and quasi-smokehouses, deliver the taste of the American South.

Bandana’s is a real Southern smokehouse, meaning they barbecue on site with smoke generated by real wood. Such authentic Q is endangered as traditional strongholds fall to environmental protection codes — even Raleigh, N.C., has banned wood burning. That’s why some so-called barbecue chains tend toward simulation rather than the dirty work of real smoking. And that’s why Bandana’s is the best chain to open a store in the metro. Based in St. Louis with roots in north Florida, Bandana’s presents Southern BBQ: Meats are seasoned with a “brown sugar dry rub” and smoked without sauce over select hardwoods (14 hours with hickory for pork butts and “special beef cuts;” five hours with various woods for ribs and chicken), and they are hand-cut to order.

This chain also knows its market. Each time I visited, a server explained the method to me, assured me that the authentic smoke ring didn’t mean the meats were undercooked and introduced four house sauces. One of those was “specially formulated for Midwesterners,” which means it’s extremely sweet. The mustard based “Original” sauce tasted like South Carolina. The meats were uneven but way above average. Pulled pork shoulder was best, with enough skin to give it a diversity of textures that was missing in other meats, plus it was perfectly moist. Sausage was exceptional, and that’s not as easy as it sounds. Bandana’s links include both beef and pork in natural casings that cracked under my teeth.

Chicken came with nice flavor contrasts from the smoked skin and the ring. As usual, the dark meat was better than the white. Pork ribs will please all but pro Q judge types. They were tender and smoky but clung too much to the bone one time and slipped completely loose off the bone a second time — missing the window of perfection both times.

Beef wasn’t as good. Servers gave a different answer each time I asked what part of the cow it was. One thing is certain: it was not brisket and that’s part of the problem. The difficulty with brisket is that, more than other cuts, it needs to be hand sliced when ordered. Bandana’s wastes the careful work of hand slicing with their mystery cuts of beef, which were far too dry on my plate. There was also a turkey product, but when my server told me it wasn’t “a real bird with bones like a chicken,” I didn’t bother to order it.

Side dishes were more inconsistent than the meats. Hot boiled peanuts and Brunswick stew ranked with the better versions of the Deep South. Baked beans were top notch, with smoky meats thrown into a sauce that was not overly sweet. Fried corn on the cob disappointed with a dry texture. Cole slaw and potato salad seemed like concessions to non-Southern tastes, lacking the acid kick of vinegar or lemon I anticipated from a Southern place. Green beans were awful, as if warmed from a can. Chocolate cake, apple pie and ice cream comprised the dessert list, all of which were deserving of their low prices. A children’s menu presented 15 choices priced $2-$4. It showed a proud, erect chicken pointing a gun — this is no spineless turkey.

Side Dish

Raccoon River Brewing Company hosts an exceptional five-course beer dinner on Jan. 16. Let a few names tease you — Washington oysters, Dungeness crab and Niman Ranch pork. Each course is paired with original beers. Cost is $45, including tax and tip. Call 362-5222. C

301 E. First Street, Ankeny
(515) 964-9989
Sun. - Thurs.: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Fri. - Sat.: 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

By Jim Duncan

Past Food Dude Reviews
Chicken Coop Sports Bar & Grill (7-20-06) South Philly's (8-03-06)
Delicious Hispanic Influences (8-10-06) TNT & the New MLK (8-17-06)
Jimmy's Bar-B-Que Pit (8-24-06) Old Time Flavors (8-31-06)
Lucca (9-7-06) Krieger's Sports Grill (9-14-06)
Huynh Ky BBQ (9-21-06) El Bait Shop (9-28-06)
East Side Grill & Vineyard (10-05-06) Cafe´ Shi (10-12-06)
India Star (10-19-06) Michael’s Restaurant (10-26-06)
801 Steak & Chop House (11-02-06) When Pigs Fly (11-09-06)
Spaghetti's (11-16-06) Wong’s Chopsticks (11-30-06)
Coach's Corner (12-07-06) Namasté (12-14-06)
Food Dude’s best of 2006 (12-28-06) Amici Espresso (1-4-07)

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