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Beyond frozen

DQ and Culver’s new concepts

Dairy Queen rules the world of corporate restaurants. During the 1970s, DQ stock paid the highest return of any publicly traded investment, making it the only food company to even come close to garnering such a distinction in modern times. What’s more, its success was tied to an against-the-wind trend that endeared the company to millions of people who don’t care about the stock market because it targeted dying small towns in Middle America. By offering more than ice cream, it became the only restaurant in many towns, while earning a spot in American folklore. DQ was Wal-Mart with a heart as well as brain, honored by arguably America’s greatest living novelist and its greatest living financier. Larry McMurtry, who made it a character in “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,” which motivated Warren Buffet to buy the company lock, stock and Blizzard barrel.

So when DQ launches something labeled a “prototype” store, it is worth a drive to Waukee. In addition to its trademarked ice cream desserts, DQ Grill & Chill features, you guessed it, a grill. As soon as I walked in I could see flames jumping above the window line of the kitchen. I took that as a good sign and, being a wimp when confronted by the powers of suggestion, I ordered a “Flame Thrower” burger, plus a chicken basket and a bowl of chili. The burger got its name from Tabasco flavored mayo, pepper jack cheese and jalapeno bacon. Despite all the flames, the meat patties were not seared and disappointing. Chicken was a standard, processed product and the chili was dominated by tomato paste. It was also more than twice the price of similar, but better, chili I found last summer at B-Bops and Wendy’s.

Such food might be OK in small towns with no competition, but the western suburbs are the most competitive corporate food market in Iowa. Rather than move on to other DQ fare such as grilled turkey, Philly steak and quesadillas, I took a short drive to West Des Moines where another ice cream-based franchise was also launching a new “prototype” store.

Culver’s is an after thought when Wisconsin foodies rate the best frozen custard outlets, but it’s the dairy king for taking that rich version of soft serve to a bigger market. Their new concept is a smaller scale version of their usual store, but with 26 tables, it was still bigger than the DQ Grill & Chill. This Culver’s had an appreciable enthusiasm amongst employees. Asking for recommendations at DQ was like watching Jay Leno’s current affairs quiz — “Ummmm, I dunnno, everything?” At Culver’s I got sincere, detailed tips.

For comparison sake I ordered a butter burger, which I had tried previously and touted. It came with two essential qualities lacking at the DQ: an irregularly shaped patty (rather than the tell-tale perfect circle of frozen processed burgers); and significant sear, which produces flavor. Condiments were improved too, but one expects better mustard choices from a Wisconsin company.

On an employee’s persistent recommendation, I ordered fried chicken. Golden crusted and moist to the bone, it shamed the DQ chicken product. It’s as good as fast food chicken gets and it is “all you can eat for $7” on Wednesdays. Two other items exceeded expectations: A hot beef sandwich delivered good pot roast, not boring rounds, real mashed potatoes and decent gravy; and the Reuben had good corned beef brisket. Small things were done well — dinner rolls were fresh, hot and served with real butter. The frozen custard was richer than DQ’s.

On a Sunday afternoon, Culver’s played family movies on their wide screen TV. That gesture borrows the soul of DQ’s small town spirit — this place is more about community than turning tables.

Side dish
March 1 is the deadline for recipe entries to the Iowa Egg Council’s 22nd Annual Egg Cooking Contest, with a $500 first prize. Contact Jana Finnegan at (877) 469-2344, or CV

By Jim Duncan

Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07)  

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