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By Jim Duncan Reviews

El Chisme’s fresh angel hair in marinara with carnitas.
El Chisme, 2920 Merle Hay Road, 255-5756
Tues. - Fri. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m. - 10 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.

El Chisme — Jesus’ Inspirational Story

Jesus Ojeda started in the restaurant business by designing and building his own pushcart, in hopes it would comply with Los Angeles health and safety regulations. His cart was so well designed to maintain both hot and cold temperatures that health inspectors used it as a model when they rewrote pushcart codes. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Ojeda graduated from culinary academy and moved to the Chicago area where he worked on Don Yamaguchi’s line at Le Francais, a legendary French restaurant in Wheeling. He saved money, bought a state-of-art mobile taqueria and moved to Des Moines. He built a customer base catering events like ArtFest and Latino festivals while working as George Formaro’s sous chef at Centro. Last fall, he opened his first sit down restaurant — El Chisme (Gossip) — on Merle Hay Road.

Ojeda built El Chisme’s Mexican menu around scratch, home made tortillas. Double tortilla tacos, burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas all use fresh homemade tortillas. His tortas employ fresh bollilos from a Mexican bakery. I’ve tried some of each with asada (steak), pollo (baked chicken), cabeza (cow’s head), chicharron (pig skin), pastor (roast pork), tripas (tripe) and tongue. From his dinner menu, I found some excellent carnitas (twice cooked pork), plus fajitas and a ribeye steak dinner that cost less than $20. I’ve always found staff willing to make exceptional accommodations. For instance, Ojeda usually prepares chicharron (pork skin) in salsa verde (green sauce) “a la Durango,” which means that pork skins are marinated in the same sauce in which they’re cooked. That causes them to re-hydrate to the texture of tofu. If you prefer, he will fry the skins into crispy cracklings and throw them in the salsa at the last minute. He will even simmer them in red salsa if you prefer.

Ojeda leaves the kitchen whenever he can to engage his customers personally. That’s how I learned that: he picks the meat off the entire cow’s head for his “cabeza” and that customers can specify if they prefer cheeks, sockets or forehead meat; his chicken soup is made with a scratch stock of roasted hind quarters — one of the best pure broths I tasted all winter and he makes his own chorizo, but he buys his Italian sausage from Graziano’s.

What is a Mexican chef doing with Italian sausage? Because he built his clientele around catering, Ojeda said he’s used to accommodating special requests. While making taco deliveries, he kept hearing people say, “If you only delivered pizza as good as your tacos.” So, he tinkered with his tortilla machinery until he figured out how to make pizza pies and calzones with it. And because he loves working with dough, he expanded into home made pasta — not just fettuccini and ravioli either. All El Chisme’s pasta is now fresh from scratch — even the traditional pasta seca such as penne, spaghetti and angel hair. That latter pasta is a taste epiphany from another time or place. The fresh flavor of the tiny noodles triggers Proustian memories of 50 years ago. Their thin, orange colored marinara of reduced plum tomatoes is more what one expects in Mexico than Iowa. By contrast, an Alfredo sauce was thick and cheesy.

In a unique service, one can add Mexican meats and chilies to any pasta, calzone or pizza. The multiple textures of carnitas perfectly complemented my angel hair. Chorizo-stuffed ravioli allowed one to taste more fresh pasta than spicier Italian sausage does. Mexican peppers spiced a medium thick pizza that included at least three different cheeses. Bottom line — El Chisme uses no templates, just creative thinking and fresh ingredients.

Side Dishes
Some veteran owner-chefs are opening new cafés. Tim Flanagan (Flanagan’s) and Lauri Jaynes (Kathy’s) opened Timothy’s Steakhouse & Pub in the building that recently housed both Tedesco’s and Silvestrini’s… Jeremy Morrow (43, Star Bar, Azalea, Zen) plans an early March opening for Town Hall Tavern in the West Des Moines venue where Garcia’s thrived for years and Bordo’s was the most recent tenant. CV

Food Dude Reviews 2009 2008 Reviews ~ 2007 Reviews
Best & Worst of 2008 (01-01-09) Maxie’s (01-08-09)
Fawn's (01-15-09) Kwong Tung welcomes the Ox (01-22-09)
Noah's Ark (01-29-09) Taste of Elegance (02-05-09)
La Mie Bakery & Café (02-12-09)  

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