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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com Reviews

The Big Max Burger
Grandma Max’s

I-80 at exits 142 Altoona and 126 Urbandale
Open 24/7
Phat Chef’s
1300 50th St., West Des Moines, 327-9211
Mon. - Fri. 11 a.m. - 2 p.m., Mon. - Thurs. 5 p.m. - 9 p.m., Fri. - Sat. 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.

$10 — the new $40

Everyone’s looking for a bargain. Last week, McDonalds announced a huge increase in its November sales, crediting its “dollar menu” and driving cardiologists to despair. Better Homes & Gardens recently introduced a “$3.50 dinner” feature. I’ve received several inquiries about “good $10 dinners,” a specialty of alternative papers like Cityview. Unlike big daily papers, alternatives have always covered the emerging ethnic scene where the best bargains are found. So, for an entire week, I tried to stick to $10 dinners, with only one slip.

This summer the Des Moines Register published a two-page story about goat meat, yet somehow ignored our only authentic birrieria (restaurants devoted to goat). La Peña (2010 Indianola Ave., 288-3226) has been serving goat stews for five years, not five days. Luis and Carmen de Avila hand grind their flours, meals, spices and salsas and use chilies de arbol, the first food that Columbus saw in the New World. My $8 roast goat dinner cost way less than one at any restaurant the Register noticed. Next, I found that La Rosa (2312 Forest Ave., 255-9520) is holding its price on tamales — at just $12 a dozen! Steamed in cornhusks and filled with both sweet and savory delights, Rosa Martinez’s tamales are civic icons. She learned her art from her father, Don Juan, who learned from the Aztec god of love. On Christmas Eve, the tamale line at Rosa’s door will extend half a block.

Feeling winter in my bones, I returned to five different Vietnamese cafés for pho that meal-in-a-bowl of beef bone stock and noodles. Most local versions take 12 hours to prepare and still cost around $7. The best were served at Lucky Dragon (1452 2nd Ave., 288-3936), TNT (3452 ML King Parkway, 277-2077) and Pho Hao Dao (1521 Second Ave., 288-1277).? I checked out two reader tips about bargains in more traditional dining rooms. I visited Grandma Max’s (GM) for “a breakfast deal that’s better than Denny’s.” I found lots of cheap entertainment: simulated deer hunting; life-sized porcelain dolls; bulletin boards advertising everything from llamas to ballet lessons; and urinals that provided privacy walls and coupons. However, when I asked about the super breakfast deal, my waitress just pointed at the menu where $7.49 bacon and eggs was typical. Even spaghetti went over my $10 threshold. So I broke down and ordered a $17 hamburger. Weighing in at four pounds, The Big Max dwarfs the Gunderburger, which has famously kept an entire town on the Iowa map. If you can eat a Big Max in one hour, you get a T-shirt. You still pay the $17 though — there’s no discount for self-abuse. One taste of the giant stale bun convinced me to give up after maybe 6 ounces. Leaving the restaurant, I finally noticed the touted breakfast special. A big $4 breakfast deal was advertised on GM’s outside window, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

Another local special was offered graciously at one of Iowa’s best restaurants. Phat Chef’s “economic stimulus package” provides $10 entrees on weekdays. Rather than hiding them, waiters enthusiastically endorsed those bargains, which were advertised on every table. My confit of pork shoulder with braised cabbage was so good I returned another night for tempura fried chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy and spiced corn. Both bargains ranked with kitchen’s other entrees, and no one tried to shame me out of ordering them.

Bottom line — this year The New York Times declared, “$40 is the new $30” for entrée pricing. Now it seems that $10 is the new $40.

Side Dishes
New Year’s Eve dinners are bargain priced this year. Chef Hal Jasa announced a $60 feast at Phat Chef’s — down from $175 two years ago… Tag Grandgeorge is advertising a $50 dinner at Le Jardin that includes champagne. CV

Food Dude Reviews 2008 2007 Reviews
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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) Coffee (2-21-08)
Cool Basil (2-28-08) Sports Bars (3-06-08)
Daddy O’s Bodacious Foods (3-13-08) Maverick Grill (3-20-08)
Phat Chef’s (4-03-08) Shotz & Grill Cordoba (4-10-08)
Radish (4-17-08) Alba (4-24-08)
Billy Mack's (5-01-08) Jethro’s BBQ & Sports Bar (5-15-08)
Viva los Forasteros (5-22-08) Torocco! (5-29-08)
The King and I (6-05-08) Chipotle Mexican Grill (6-12-08)
Django (6-26-08) Swine (7-03-08)
Sbrocco (7-17-08) Zuzap (8-14-08)
Le Jardin (8-21-08) Samurai Sushi & Hibachi (8-28-08)
Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano (9-4-08) Old Castle (9-11-08)
Old Mexic, New Mexico (9-18-08) Bistro at ICI (9-25-08)
Transmigration of the soul (food) (10-02-08) Boilin' Crawfish 4 (10-09-08)
Comfort food (10-16-08) Beyond the World Food Fest (10-23-08)
Tedesco’s Steakhouse (10-30-08) Proof finds its place (11-06-08)
Graze is no ordinary restaurant (11-13-08) Living History Farms (11-20-08)
Iowa restaurants (11-27-08) Skybox (12-04-08)
American dreams come true (12-11-08)  

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