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Cover Story

RELISH: Dining Icons

    Twenty pages of dining news inside featuring unique Iowa traditions like steak de burgo

By Jim Duncan, Matt Miller and Jared Curtis

View the complete Relish Dining Guide in page-turn format

 

 

By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com

Dining icons: Des Moines’ tourism niche

Des Moines’ food scene has come a long way since the 1980s when a major East Coast newspaper declared, “a gourmet tour of Iowa is a non-stop trip.” In the last 10 years, vital independent restaurants developed here while similarly sized towns were losing theirs to industrial franchise restaurants that metastasized with suburban sprawl. Outsiders took notice and Des Moines began placing more than its share of chefs on the James Beard Award ballots, the country’s supreme judgment of all food things.

Yet, when it comes time for the average Des Moines family to qualify our local scene’s excellence, they often pause allowing old stereotypes to surface — things like state fair corn dogs which used to define us to outsiders. Today, economic development depends upon local culinary ambassadors, particularly this time of year when the majority of tourists visit Iowa. Food travel is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry. More and more people each year rate “dining” or “foods” as top motivations for traveling to a particular place. To capitalize, Des Moines needs to market its unique assets. The town is full of wonderful foods that distinguish it from any place else on earth. Here are a few.

Unique traditions

The pork tenderloin

Pork tenderloins are Iowa’s most edible icon. Photo by Jim Duncan

It differs little from Vienna's wiener schnitzel, Prague's smažený øízek, Milan's cotoletta alla Milanese and Osaka's tonkatsu, yet the pork tenderloin is Iowa's edible icon. The sandwich sprawls over the state's identity like its tenderized, breaded and fried meat overlaps its bun. Adored in every county here, it’s pretty much unknown beyond the Twin Cities to the north, Indiana to the east, Omaha to the west and the Iowa-Missouri border to the south. Tenderloins are served in some of the state’s most distinguished restaurants as well as in convenience stores, gas stations and ice cream parlors. As popular in our cities as in our rural areas, they are the darling of some of the state’s finest chefs and the backbone of beloved drive-ins and taverns.

“It’s the food most identified with Iowa and with which most Iowans identify,” explains Iowa Arts Council Folklife Coordinator Riki Saltzman, who has spent years researching “place-based foods” in the state.

Most of time, such Iowans identify with a misnomer.

“Most ‘pork tenderloins’ aren’t even made with the tenderloin,” says partner-butcher John Brooks of Des Moines’ oldest food market, B & B Grocery, Meat & Deli in the Sevastopol neighborhood.

“That’s why we advertise ‘real pork tenderloin.’ We only use real tenderloin, the smallest and most expensive of the three parts that comprise the loin, from pure pork. Other places just tenderize the entire loin and a lot of them use pork that’s been chemically injected, like the stuff is at the big supermarkets,” Brooks explained.

It’s long been asserted in Iowa’s German and Czech communities that the pork tenderloin, as we know it now, was popular in the late 19th century. Pork tenderloins use recipes similar to wiener schnitzel except that pork is substituted for veal, which was hard to come by in 19th century Iowa. That predates the often-repeated claim that the sandwich was invented in Indiana in 1905.

Iowa towns argue about which restaurants serve the best pork tenderloins. Realizing that such arguments were good for marketing, the Iowa Pork Producers (IPP) have declared at least one “best pork tenderloin in Iowa” every year since 2004. A Des Moines Register readers’ poll cited 26 different best places for tenderloins. At least two writers devote web sites to Iowa tenderloins. Tyrgyzistan’s (www.desloines.blogspot.com) is the most thorough and he has rated tenderloins at Indianola’s Crouse Café and Wellsburg’s Town House (also at 1st and Army Post Road in Des Moines) higher than others.

Tenderloin status is easier to determine in other categories. Porky’s promotes the biggest tenderloin events. That 1950’s style drive-in built its business around motorcycle nights, car nights and ten different styles of pork tenderloin. James Beard Award semifinalists Enosh Kelley (Bistro Montage) and George Formaro (Centro) have done the most to take the tenderloin upscale. Centro’s “Kill Bill” is the most indulgent tenderloin — it also includes ham, eggs, cheese and bacon. Gateway Market in Sherman Hill leads the state in upgrading loins for home cooks by selling ready-to-fry Niman Ranch tenderloins, breaded with Formaro’s recipe, in their butcher shop.

De Burgo — Des Moines’ Spanish Civil War heirloom?
While the pork tenderloin became popular across the entire state, steak de burgo’s realm has been limited to greater Des Moines. While the dish is pretty much unheard of beyond Polk County, most sit-down restaurants in Des Moines serve some version of it. To confuse things, within central Iowa steak de burgo is made from many, utterly different recipes.

Jerry and Julia Talerico’s father Vic Talerico had steak de burgo on menus at his Tally Rand Club in 1939, and later at Vic’s Tally Ho. It was made with beef tenderloin, olive oil, garlic and basil. That’s the first documented appearance of de burgo in Iowa, although the 1964 book “Famous Food From Famous Places” credited the dish to Johnny & Kay’s (Compiano) restaurant. Their recipe differed from Talerico’s by using butter and more herbs. It’s possible Vic Talerico and Johnny Compiano learned of de burgo from the same source. Both once lived in the Francis Avenue neighborhood in north Des Moines. Unlike the mostly southern Italian south side, Francis Avenue included immigrants from northern Italy, France and Spain.

The most plausible explanation for steak de burgo’s name is that it evolved from the Spanish Civil War. During that conflict, Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia were strongholds of the Loyalists while Burgos was the base of Nationalists. After the latter prevailed, references to all things from Catalonian became politically incorrect in Generalissimo Franco’s dictatorship. Enterprising chefs changed names instead of recipes. The first Des Moines recipe for de burgo amounted to herbed Catalonian “allioli,” a garlic-infused olive oil that is eaten with practically anything in Barcelona. “Allioli” was taboo; so Spanish chefs would re-name such a preparation “de Burgos” after Franco’s stronghold. According to this theory, somewhere between Barcelona and Des Moines, Italian-Americans personalized the recipe by losing the final “s” in “Burgos” and dropping to a lower case “b.”

Today, butter is almost always added to de burgo recipes, even at Julia and Jerry Talerico’s Sam & Gabe’s restaurant in Urbandale. Just about everything else differs from place to place. Barrata’s also makes their de burgo with combined olive oil and butter but most places completely replace olive oil. The Iowa Culinary Institute (ICI) teaches it with butter instead of oil, insisting that steak pans be deglazed with white wine. Some places, Bella Petras among them, substitute sirloin for tenderloin.

The most drastically altered versions originated at Johnny’s Vets Club in Valley Junction. That Johnny’s added half and half and emulsifiers to the recipe. The creamy style caught on so well that at least half of Des Moines now thinks it’s the real deal. It’s become the preferred de burgo for chicken, too. Chef’s Kitchen, Jesse’s Embers, Christopher’s and Mezzodi serve creamy de burgo but with sherry replacing white wine at the latter two places. At Bella Petras, whiskey replaces wine. Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse, unrelated to either Johnny’s Vet’s Club or Johnny & Kay’s, fuses the two main styles by using both olive oil and a cream reduction.

By whatever recipe, de burgo is “da bomb” in Des Moines.

Fresh cavatelli

Cafe di Scala cavatelli

There are as many ways to pronounce cavatelli as there are recipes for de burgo. Preparations are more consistent. Cavatelli resembles gnocchi minus potatoes. They are little dumplings, about an inch long with rounded edges that can be frozen, though traditionalists insist they be eaten after briefly drying. They are usually made with semolina flour, water and salt. Most restaurants also use eggs. Chuck’s uses vegetable oil instead of eggs. In southern Italy, where they are far more popular than in other parts of the country, cavatelli was considered the most special celebration food. That continued on Des Moines’ southside where our most significant restaurant heritage developed. Chef George Formaro (Centro) thinks cavatelli, more than anything else, represent Des Moines’ Italian traditions.

“More than other pasti, they were a southern Italian tradition, a special Sunday afternoon food. They were always made fresh and they required a special machine to crank them out. All that transferred to Des Moines’ Italian community. They were the birthday request of every single member of my family growing up,” he recalled.

Fifty years ago, every Italian restaurant in town served fresh cavatelli. Before closing a few years ago, Helen & Pat’s House of Cavatelli served little else. However, in Italy as well as in the U.S., frozen products replaced homemade traditions in the last half of the 20th century. Only a few local restaurants still serve home made cavatelli — Café di Scala, Centro, Chuck’s, Mama Lacona’s and Mr. V’s among them.

Summer wonders

The BLT

Iowa tomatoes are works of art — like this by Karen Strohbeen. Courtesy of Moberg Gallery.

The BLT possesses all criteria of gourmet extravagance. Simultaneously salty and sweet, soft and crunchy, its hot bacon meets its cold lettuce and mayonnaise. (Only in Des Moines does the most traditional local mayo, Mrs. Clark’s, include mustard seeds.) A full rainbow of colors dances between slices of artisan bread. What other dish provides so much diversity?

By late July, the happy coincidence of hot weather, rich glacial soils, small town lockers and family

hog farmers turns the state into Canterbury for sandwich pilgrims. Here the best-smoked pork bellies meet the best heirloom tomatoes and lettuces on earth, while artisan bakers make breads worthy of killing pigs. Iowa’s Seed Savers Exchange is the world‘s bank for heirloom tomato seeds. So Iowa farmers’ markets have become a lycopersicon universe of colors and tastes in late summer. Listen to the mighty music of their names — Jaune Flammee, Evergreen, White Queen, Dixie Gold, Green Zebra, Red Zebra, Ponderosa, Big Rainbow, Cherokee Purple and Purple Calabash.

To complement heirloom tomatoes, Des Moines markets and cafés offer bacons, cured and uncured, from dozens of local family farms and small town lockers, including respected Iowa names like Niman Ranch, Eden Farms, VandeRose Farms, Lewright’s and Iowa Farm Families. La Quercia allows more exotic applications while staying local with their salt and air dried pancetta (Italian style bacon), guancialli (from pork jowls) and with America’s most expensive bacon ($18 a pound) — dried like their prosciutto, it’s best eaten raw.

The BLT also is a top opportunity to show off Des Moines‘ great artisan bakers — South Union, La Mie, Basil Prosperi‘s, etc.

Corn

A corn gordita at La Rosa’s.

Corn irony grows taller than field corn in August. Iowa is “the corn state,” yet, outside of the three-week season for sweet corn, Iowans had pretty much stopped eating the plant in any natural form, until Latino immigrants began opening restaurants here in the last decade. Hard corn has always been the main source of Mexican and Central American diets — in tamales, tortillas, polentas, pupusas, sopas and guaraches.

Even in Los Angeles, it’s hard to find an old fashioned Mexican café where everything, even the tortillas, are made fresh from scratch. Yet, here in Des Moines, La Pena, Dos Rios and El Chisme make all their tortillas that way. La Rosa, La Pena, Raccoon River Brewing Company, Vera Cruz and Dos Rios all make their tamales fresh. A dozen other places make guaraches, sopas or gorditas from scratch each day.

The most exotic way to show off “corn state” status is with the pupusa. The hamburger of El Salvador, this dish best represents that national culture. Fairs and farmers markets familiarized many Iowans with pupusas but El Salvador del Mundo converts new believers — because the Carlos de Leon family makes them, like all their corn-derived dishes, with fresh made masa.

Like french fries, pupusas need to be eaten fresh off the griddle while their outside is still hot and fluffy and their filling is molten — to balance their richness with fresh made red salsa and with “curtido,” a vinegary slaw of pickled cabbage, carrots and onions. One can stuff pupusas with a choice of chicharron (cracklings), white cheese, loroco (artichoke-like flower), red beans and any combination.

Libations

Templeton Rye

Bacon fest explosion.

Resurrected from Roaring ’20s lore, Templeton Rye (TR) links modern Iowa to speakeasy culture. This rye whiskey is produced by modern means — no log fires for the 30 gallon copper pots today. Aged in charred oak barrels, TR is so popular in Iowa that the company has delayed expansion plans. It sells out every batch in just the Iowa and Chicago markets.

One favorite summer cocktail is Templeton Lemonade — made with two ounces of TR, one ounce of triple sec and the juice of half a lemon with a splash of lemon-lime soda and ice.

Sutliff Cider

Iowa’s highly praised Sutliff Cider is restoring its glory.

In Iowa’s early years, as in Johnny Appleseed’s day, almost all apples were sour and consumed as hard liquor. Homesteading incentives encouraged the planting of apple orchards, so it’s often said that hard cider civilized the American frontier — from Pennsylvania to Iowa. In the 20th century, sweeter hybrid apples and more potent distilled beverages ended hard cider’s reign. The highly praised Iowa beverage Sutliff Cider is now restoring its glory.

Made from a variety of Iowa apples, on an old-fashioned rack and cloth press, the cider has 6 percent alcohol and is fairly dry with lively carbonation. This “champagne-style” cider is barrel fermented in French oak, which gives just a hint in the finish. It’s been named one of the 30 best ciders in the world, one of only four American ciders chosen. RELISH

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