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By Jim Duncan

Crouse Café

The Iowa of popular lore is gone with the 20th century wind. Today, a person can drive the entire width of the state without laying eyes on a single cow or pig. Hip-hop is more popular than square dancing. And the only Iowans who need to stick their fingers in their ears before answering questions are quarantined in Bill Bryson books. Yet old stereotypes cling to our identity with the tenacity of cancer cells, particularly when it comes to dining. Iowans know it’s easier now to find a Laotian, Salvadoran and Bosnian restaurant than a single scratch cooking Mom & Pop café, but try telling that to out of town visitors. My e-mail address was recently listed as a restaurant information source for John Wayne Centennial pilgrims. Mostly they asked wistful things like “What are the top five places for pan-fried chicken?” If only.

A couple months ago, I wrote about the Suburban Restaurant, a true to the bone (stock) café and a charter member of my Iowa Food Hall of Fame, along with Polenha’s Market, the Oneonta Co-Op and Jerry Talerico‘s recipe for steak de burgo. The response to that column set a Food Dude record for replies — not counting hate mail. Several different writers reminded me that another Central Iowa home-cookin’ café has been around even longer than the Suburban. In fact, Crouse Café is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. And, in a daring defiance of tradition, they banned smoking for the first time.

Crouse began in 1946 in Lenox, Knoxville and Indianola and moved to its present location, just off the square in Indianola, in 1963. The third and fourth generation of the founding family are running things now — John and Rhonda, plus five children. Both John and Rhonda cook, too, in this hands-on operation. Like all small town home cooking cafés of lore, Crouse is open for three meals a day. Breakfast is community time, with retirees hanging around and businessmen hustling through generous portions of French toast and hashed browns with eggs and sausage.

Crouse is not as pure scratch as Suburban, but hardly any place in America is. The Indianola café combines an admirable amount of scratch recipes with some modern short cuts. Among the pure treasures we tried, pan fried chicken stood out. It was lightly floured, without corn meal, and slow-cooked in cast iron skillets. Home made, pan dripping chicken gravy accompanied mashed potatoes. No one has ever invented a better method of frying chicken. Note that it’s only served after 5 p.m. and worth the wait. I met a couple who said they wait all year for Crouse’s fried chicken before Des Moines Metro Opera productions.

Fried chicken isn’t Crouse’s most famous dish though. That would be their iconic onion rings, also hand floured and served in three sizes: quarter ($3.59), half ($4.59) and whole ($4.99) orders. Hand breaded pork tenderloins and chicken fried steaks would complete a holy quadrant of Indianola fried foods.

Crouse’s hot beef sandwich is also among the best around, obviously cut from homemade roast beef, not the deplorable pre-cooked rounds that pass for roast beef in most places. Gravy was true, too.

Rhonda’s flaky crust pies are a prerequisite to a complete meal. You have to ask about fresh made ingredients, as several compromise with canned fillings. The apple pie I had did not. Hand dipped malted milks are another old-fashioned way to go on dessert here.

Side dishes

Battle’s Barbecue opened an outlet in Indianola at 606 N. Jefferson St. … Closed for a major remodeling after a winter flood, Mojo’s on 86th Street in Johnston will host a fundraiser ($20) July10 for The Animal Lifeline of Iowa, a no-kill shelter for special needs animals. Their grandreopening will be July 13. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07) Aryana (3-8-07)
AJ's (3-15-07) Ban Thai (3-22-07)
Two Crop Palace(3-29-07) Mo Q x 2 (4-5-07)
What's In A Name?(4-12-07) Lemongrass (4-19-07)
Chef Joe's Place (5-3-07) Suburban Restaurant (5-10-07)
Gateway Market Café (5-17-07) Irina’s Restaurant Bar (5-24-07)
Trailer Tripe (5-31-07) Azalea (6-07-07)
Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
El Sabor Latino (6-28-07)  

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