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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Carefree Café
Center Court of Valley West Mall,
1551 Valley West Drive, West Des Moines, 223-9553
Mon. - Sat. 10 a.m.- 9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.- 6 p.m.

Black Cat Café,
3701 Ingersoll Ave., 255-9895,
Mon. - Thurs. 10 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. - Sat. 10 a.m. – midnight

Coffee: Not just for breakfast anymore

The corporate coffeehouse industry is “restructuring.” Starbucks’ stock plummeted so much last year that founder Howard Schultz came out of retirement to save his company, saying that Starbucks needs to focus on good coffee instead of selling more merchandise and cellophane-wrapped, processed foods. He criticized Starbucks instant espresso machines, which replaced baristas with cashiers. Schultz also wants to quit opening so many stores that they cannibalize each other’s sales. Corporate coffee’s No. 2 player, Caribou, began emphasizing overseas expansion after new stores in the Midwest met some hostile receptions. One in St. Paul, Minn., was greeted by egg-throwing protestors holding “Corporate Scum” signs. That was in the company’s own backyard.

Blessed by corporate neglect until a few years ago, Des Moines developed an original coffeehouse culture that kept faith with Schultz’s ideals while his company lost its way. When the big corporations finally found us, Java Joe’s, Zanzibar and Grounds for Celebration all had loyal followings for their fresh roasted beans. Even when the corporate steeds finally rode into town, new local independents like Mars Café, Amici Espresso and Ritual Café were undaunted by the competition. With the corporate armies retreating, I went looking for the state of the local coffeehouse scene and found two places that defy logic. Both open for business at 10 a.m., after most people have already consumed their daily coffee ration.

Carefree Café sits in the heart of Valley West Mall surrounded by enough corporate branding power to bake a cake. In a mall with neither a Starbucks nor a Caribou, this is a coffee drinker’s oasis. Three different baristas pulled perfect drinks for me. I also enjoyed the best hot chocolate I’ve found all winter. The biggest treats were more substantial foods, especially soups. Owner-chefs Jennifer Strauss and Christine Boelman are slow food, scratch cooks who insist that stocks begin with bones and shells, not mixes. I tried four different soups and all rank with the best in town.

With a panini-press and baby greens, sandwiches and salads were above average deli fare, Jennifer’s chicken salad was way above average. Her non-liquid specialties were more decadent. Strauss is an academy trained pastry chef who was battle-hardened in Chicago’s catered wedding wars. I found good quiche and cheesecake but Strauss’ signature has the shape of a cupcake: “cassis kir royale” was a black currant and champagne cake with champagne ice and orange zest; “black & tan” was a marble cake made with Guinness and Bass ales; “nutella” was a chocolate cake filled and iced with chocolate-hazelnut butter cream.

The newest member of the Ingersoll coffeehouse club is Black Cat Café (BCC). I first heard of them when an excellent Brazilian jazz combo playing the Des Moines Art Center mentioned that BCC was their weekend home. While that beats the hell out of Starbucks’ “world music,” BCC’s homemade crepes brought something even better to the table. From a menu of three savory and nine dessert crepes, I chose the classic. Crepes Suzette, orange zest’s finest application, delivered a power plate of two extra thick crepes filled with orange and caramel and paired with vanilla ice cream. Pastry and pizza are also available.

Owners Maria Cosmo and Oz Kapic have created an Eastern European ambiance with free wireless Internet, hanging lanterns, mismatched furniture, cozy nooks and a Europe-heavy wine and beer menu. Customers have responded making this the most cosmopolitan coffeehouse in town. Cityview readers touted BCC in multiple categories in this year’s Best of Des Moines poll.

Side dishes

Anderson-Erickson announced they would demand their raw milk suppliers quit shooting cows up with added bovine growth stimulants. A-E said they’re responding to customer demands. Industry followers say that big dairies have been losing market share to local, all natural dairies such as Pickett Fence and Cloverleaf in Central Iowa. … Tarracino’s Ankeny coffee store closed after 11 years. CV

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Uncle Wendell's (1-17-08) Jesse's Embers (1-24-08)
Taste of Elegance (1-31-08) Old Country Buffet (2-7-08)
Baker’s Food & Fuel (2-14-08)  

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