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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com Reviews

Baker’s Food & Fuel
Highway 4 at Southwest Ninth Street, 285-9227
Kitchen closes at 8 p.m.

Baker’s Food & Fuel

The outskirts of town are a necessary American myth. Suburbia’s polar opposite, the outskirts exist somewhat close in distance but far distant in spirit. They are where Rod Serling set “The Twilight Zone,” Warren Zevon let go of reality and Leadbelly locked away faithless women. Iowa’s culinary history is rich with legends of the outskirts, from Prohibition clubs and magical cafés in the middle of nowhere. A main street in Waukee is named after such a place. Real outskirts are hard to come by in today’s suburban sprawl, but Southwest Ninth Street leads to such a place — a gas station that abuts two barns, but sells no gas, and a truly independent convenience store.

I found this strange little place because I beg the best chefs I meet to reveal their secret dining pleasures. I thought Centro’s George Formaro was kidding me when he touted the falsely named Baker’s Food & Fuel. Yet, because he described the place as inhabiting “the outskirts of town,” I followed his directions any way. A mile or so south of the zoo I found Baker’s surrounded on two sides by gas pump bays that have been out of commission so long that weeds grew in the concrete. Inside, I found a business being run single-handedly by a cheerful lady who occasionally belted out a little Aretha Franklin while running a cash register, checking would-be beer buyers’ IDs, operating a short order station that included a flat top grill, a scratch pizza kitchen and a deep fryer and finding time to sit down and chat with customers.

The difference between this place and similar ones in “Twilight Zone” episodes was that the food is much better here — just as Formaro told me before I started making compulsive runs to this place, which Leadbelly had in mind when he sang “where the gas man doesn’t come.” Most convenience stores with no gas to sell would just close. Baker’s thrives because the short order food is fantastic. That attracts a perpetual cast of characters. About half of them are locals and half come from the other side of the galaxy. One day, a guy from Kentucky with a broken trailer hitch and some fractious horses insisted I accept an order of chicken gizzards as thanks for sharing my copy of the Daily Racing Form. Another time, I noticed that a couple left unscratched lottery tickets as a tip. Another day, two guys from Knoxville waited impatiently for the judgment of their two guests from Altoona. They then cheered upon hearing his verdict — “You’re right, this is way better than Smitty’s.”

Pork tenderloins are treated at Baker’s like a state icon, hand cut from whole loins, hand tenderized, egg washed, hand breaded, hand dipped, hand seasoned, deep fried and served with condiments that include pickled banana peppers — an influence from South Des Moines’ Italian community that attracted the horseman from Kentucky. The loins are cut plumper than most, pounded to below average width and fried to a golden crispness that in no way interferes with predominant flavor of pork.

A state-of-the-art pork tenderloin in an understaffed convenience store was only the beginning of the culinary surprises. Pizza was excellent — thin crusted, yet yeasty and covered with good mozzarella and superb sausage and marinara. They actually rolled the dough here. Being a convenience store, it was also sold by the slice. Handmade burgers and spot-on grinders, Philly cheese steaks and home made chili all keep regulars coming back to the outskirts.

Side dishes

Buy Fresh, Buy Local announced winter farmers markets at Ames Downtown Depot (Thursdays and Saturdays, www.amesfarmersmarket.com) and at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 600 Sixth St. in Des Moines (March 1, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., www.cclpmidwest.org). CV

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