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Feature Story

Best-selling menu items


Learn about Des Moines diners’ favorite dishes at the chains and the indies.

Literature and painting have chronicled the foods that delighted and enchanted people of other centuries. What foods are the contemporary equivalences of Cezanne’s peaches, Laura Esquivel’s (“Like Water for Chocolate”) quail in rose petal sauce, Jorge Amado’s shrimp and coconut milk stew (“Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon”), or Rembrandt’s oysters? The most reliable way to track the foods that define us is sales.

The populace makes best sellers sell. Yet, America is rife with people who believe that popularity — in politics, in food, in television, etc. — is evidence of the worst instincts of the human condition. Such elitists eschew best sellers simply because they are best sellers. After winning a prize for
writing in college, my girlfriend at the time was unimpressed. I asked her if she did not think I could become a professional writer. She said, “Oh, I am sure you could write a best seller,”
disparagement dripping from her lips unattractively.

In my years of waiting tables, I was asked hundreds of times, “What do you think is good?” I don’t ever recall being asked what the restaurant’s most popular item was. It seemed like people trusted the singular opinion of a stranger to the consensus of a larger market sample.

This story is not for elitists. They already believe they know what is truly good and that it’s not what average folks like. This story is for people who are not ashamed of what they like to eat, people who do not lie to pollsters out of shame. It’s also an effort to celebrate our most commonly shared tastes in foods and to identify places that just might have a delegation of food lovers who would break the same loaf of bread with you.

The steamed buns at Harbinger on Ingersoll are one of its most popular items.

Prep Iowa

Populist taste

Liquor sales are the easiest to trace in the food and beverage industry in Iowa because they are regulated by the state, and the state keeps good statistics for taxing purposes. Iowans drink more Black Velvet Canadian whisky than anything else and have for decades. Fireball cinnamon whiskey is second in Iowa sales, up nearly 5 percent last year with beer sales dropping.

Wine sales are much harder to pinpoint. The only reliable stats are national and varietal. Cabernet Sauvignon is the American favorite, with $2.575 billion in annual sales. It barely edged out Chardonnay with $2.549 billion two years ago. After those two, numbers in sales go down by half or more.

Favorites at the chains

Populist food is what most Americans eat most often. McDonald’s French fries are the bestselling menu item in the world. They are so popular that they are included in every bundled
meal on the chain’s menu. The company uses an elaborate dehydration process that contributes
significantly to their crispness, life span and inner texture.

Turkey is the best-selling sandwich meat in America, and no one sells more than Subway. Turkey-based sandwiches are the chain’s best sellers. Chik-fil-A is the most successful fast food chain in America in terms of per store sales, with $4 million per store compared to $2.7 million for McDonald’s. The chain is most famous for its chicken sandwiches, fried at high heat a minute faster than competitors’ breasts, and served on buttered buns. Yet the chain disclosed last year that chicken nuggets had surpassed the sandwich as their best-selling entrée.

Burger King (BK) is probably the fourth-largest fast food chain in America now, with Chick-fil-A likely passing them this year. Yet, the BK Whopper is the most popular burger, selling more per store than the Big Mac. In fact, McDonald’s has long studied the Whopper problem. Remember McD’s Big & Tasty? Probably not.

Taco Bell has had the best luck in the fast food industry with new products. Doritos Locos Taco sold 100 million units in just its first 10 weeks when introduced in 2012. This year nacho fries sold more than 53 million orders in the first five weeks. Taco Bell said the item, which is simply an order of fries with a side of nacho cheese sauce, was requested with one out of every three orders, compared with one out of every four for the Doritos Locos Taco.

Wendy’s, originally a burger chain, says its best seller is the spicy chicken sandwich, followed by chicken nuggets, chocolate Frostys and fries. Besides missing out of the top four, only eight burgers cracked Wendy’s top 25. Hardee’s has no such identity issues. Thickburgers, fries and hand scooped shakes dominate their sales.

Panera listed its best-selling sandwiches as: turkey avocado BLT on sourdough, Mediterranean veggie on tomato basil bread, and bacon turkey bravo on tomato basil loaf. Ranker revealed that boneless chicken wings and Mozzarella sticks were Applebee’s most popular orders.

Pepperoni pizza: No surprise here. Good old-fashioned pepperoni pizza is the top seller for both Domino’s Pizza and Pizza Hut.

Jimmy John’s is Subway’s biggest direct competition in Des Moines. In 2014, they reported that turkey and ham subs were their best sellers. Firehouse Subs says that the Hook & Ladder is its best seller. This is topped with smoked turkey breast, honey ham and melted Monterey Jack cheese. Arby’s best seller is their original roast beef sandwich, followed by beef and cheddar. Jersey Mike’s does not admit to keeping track of its best sellers but says that its roast beef with provolone, Original Italian and Mike’s Philly all do well. Jason’s Deli in 2017 announced their most popular orders were salad bars and the California club with turkey and guacamole.

Quora listed KFC’s best-selling items in 2017. Topping off the list was original recipe fried chicken, the recipe that Harlan Sanders spent years developing and for which he invented the first pressure cooker to use oil instead of steam. Popeye’s does not report menu item sales, but in August this year it released its first-ever chicken sandwich to great reviews. The Washington Post, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Business Insider all reported that the sandwich was so popular that it was sold out, completely, at many stores. Remember that shortages are great publicity, so it’s possible they were orchestrated intentionally.

Pizza Hut’s best-selling order is the large pepperoni pie. Domino’s best-seller is also pepperoni, followed by sausage. Panda Express, by far the most popular Chinese chain in America, does not publish item sales, but a 2017 poll by listed orange chicken, chow mien and honey walnut shrimp as the most popular orders. Cracker Barrel’s top sellers, other than rocking chairs, are mac and cheese, fudge and gravy, according to Spoon University. reports that the best seller at Texas Roadhouse is the 6-ounce top sirloin steak.

Favorites at local indies

Some best sellers are surprises. Centro is best known for its coal-fired oven pizza, probably the original pies of America, from Brooklyn. Yet the café’s best sellers are cavatelli (made by Café di Scala), chicken and prosciutto, and wood-grilled salmon. Cyd Koehn of Catering by Cyd is famous for huge spreads, cooking wild game and elaborate wedding feasts. Yet she says the
item that people request most often are her taco bars and deviled eggs.

Some were no surprise. When asked what his bestselling item at Flying Mango is, owner Mike Wedeking answered immediately, “Without question, it’s our brisket.” He added that a national TV host ate so much brisket he didn’t think he had room for smoked bone-in lamb chops. Then he sampled one and asked for napkins to take them to the airport. Marty Scarpino of Jesse’s Embers said their best-selling steak was the ribeye, and the top sandwich is the Emberburger. Their most popular appetizer is the Cajun shrimp. At Court Avenue Brewing Company, Chef Neil Stone said that hot wings were the runaway favorite.

A favorite waiter at the Court Avenue Hy-Vee’s Market Square Café said that his experiences suggest that the Big Breakfast (multiple meats, pancake, hash browns and eggs) was the top seller there. Tasty Tacos’ signature deep-fried flour tortilla taco, stuffed with choice of five meats, lettuce, cheese and salsa, has been their top order. Malo’s best-selling items are shrimp tacos, followed by steak tacos and chicken enchiladas.

The best-selling entrée at Trostel’s Greenbriar in Johnston is the prime rib served roasted or Cajun grilled.

Sean Wilson, who sold Proof recently to employees, said that his top-selling appetizer was either the length sliced bone marrow or the roasted beet salad. His best-selling entrees were Spanish roasted ribeye and sumac pork. Django, Des Moines’ best-known French place, now serves far more seared sea scallops than anything else. Beef bourguignon is the second most popular

People may be eating less meat but not necessarily when they go out to eat in Iowa. Sarah Hill, owner of The Hare and the Hound in Earlham, said she created a new pizza for her more rural clientele. “It’s called ‘all the meats’ and is by far our best seller. It includes all the meats we use. We did make a sweet corn pizza during the season, and it sold quite well, too.” Zombie Burger’s best-selling burger is the Zombie burger, with the Raygun burger second.

My favorite chef in Sodexho’s operation at 801 Grand says that popcorn chicken and ranch dip are the most popular orders there by far. Gateway Market Café said they sell more chicken bacon panini than anything else. Gateway burgers are second, and cran-walnut salads are third.

Motley School Tavern’s cornmeal crusted walleye is one of the most commonly ordered entrées at the Beaver Avenue restaurant.

Jason Simon owns Harbinger, Eatery A, Alba and Motley School Tavern. He said gnocchi were his bestselling appetizer at Alba. “Berkwood porterhouse is our top-selling entrée, and lava cake our most popular dessert.” At Motley School Tavern, he said homemade pastrami was the most popular sandwich, cornmeal crusted walleye the most commonly ordered entrée, and Scotcheroos the No. 1 dessert. Eatery A’s top-sellers sound healthier with Brussels sprouts the top appetizer, curried cauliflower falafel the top entrée, and budino (an Italian custard) the No. 1 dessert. Harbinger’s best sellers are its steamed buns, and Berkshire pork spare ribs with haikuri turnips, mint and peanut sauce are the top entrée. The buns are served with pork belly, scallions and hoisin sauce, honey and cardamom glazed tofu with cherry chutney and yoghurt, and fried Korean chicken with watermelon kimchi and soy aioli.

Jay Wang is the founder of the Wasabi restaurants around the metro. (W-Tao has spun off and is now owned by Wang’s former partner.) “We sell a lot of sashimi combo plates. The quality of our fish sets us apart from other sushi places. Our most popular sushi roll is the angry dragon (spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, mango topped with spicy crab and yuzu maki sauce). Our best-selling entrees are ramen bowls, spicy sesame chicken and Hong Kong style beef. We sell a lot of wine, and our most popular cocktail is called Des Moines Love.

Wasabi restaurants around the metro say they sell a lot of sashimi combo plates, sushi rolls such as the angry dragon (spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, mango topped with spicy crab and yuzu maki sauce), and ramen bowls — especially the spicy sesame chicken and Hong Kong style beef.

Trostel’s Greenbriar has different menus for lunch and dinner. At lunch, their best sellers are chicken pecan raspberry salad and sliced grilled orange tarragon chicken breast with Maytag blue cheese crumbles and raspberry vinaigrette. Their best-selling sandwich is their French dip made from prime rib on toasted baguettes served au jus. Their top appetizer orders for dinner are baked mushrooms Boursin, a dish Paul Trostel introduced in Des Moines, with mushroom caps stuffed with Boursin cheese and served au jus. Their best-selling entrée is their prime rib served roasted or Cajun grilled. They host frequent wine dinners and report that anything featuring Cabernet Sauvignon is fast to sell out.

Jeff Bruning is the face of Full Court Press. He said Hessen Haus’ best sellers are their schnitzels, veal or pork. Fong’s most popular pizza is the crab Rangoon, and Royal Mile sells more fish and chips than anything else. The High Life Lounge’s best seller is the cheeseburger basket with tots, and The Library’s most popular dish is cheeseburger nachos, though breakfast is the most popular meal there.

Irina Khartchenko of Irina’s restaurant said the mussels in chardonnay are her best-selling appetizer, the build-your-own cheeseburger her top sandwich, and steak de Burgo her most popular entrée. With the most complete vodka collection in Iowa, Irina’s most popular cocktail is a dirty martini with Russian vodka.

General Manager Mike Holms of Jethro’s gave us precise numbers. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 14 of 2019, the No. 1 order at the restaurants was ranch dressing with more than 800,000 orders. Next came boneless wings with 121,000 full orders and 74,000 half orders. Their top-selling sandwich was their BBQ pulled pork with sales of nearly 82,000 and their top entrée was the one meat dinner with more than 42,000.

Splash GM Mark Murphy said their best selling appetizer was the calamari and shrimp, with the sea bass meuniere topping their entrees in sales. He added that their most popular dessert was key lime pie and that their oyster bar’s best seller was, wait for this, oysters on the half shell.

The squid ink paella at Nomad is among the Gateway Park area eatery’s best-selling items.

Christopher’s partner Renee Guidicessi told us her best-selling appetizer is either onion rings or cheese sticks, their best selling sandwich is the French dip, their most popular entrees are prime rib and chicken Parmesan, and, most appropriately for a place cut out of the Mad Men era, their best selling cocktail is the old fashioned. At Americana, we were told that crab Rangoon dip is the top appetizer, the loaded ribeye the best-selling entrée and chicken avocado sandwich their most popular.

Owner Chef Lynn Pritchard of Table 128 said he probably sells more mussels with fennel pollen
than any other appetizer and that his yellowtail, pan seared and served with sweet Israeli couscous, Swiss chard and egg aioli, is his most popular entrée. He also added that Grenache is likely his most popular wine and the Old Fashioned his top cocktail.

A manager at G Mig’s 5th Street Pub said that they have a new best seller for the first time since they opened. The long reign as favorite has ended for the prime rib burger. The new champ is the Pride of Iowa, a wrap they created for this year’s Iowa State Fair. It won the best new food award at the fair and now the taste buds of the café’s customers. It includes pork carnitas, hickory bacon, cheddar jack cheese, guacamole, corn salsa, tortilla crumbles, and chipotle aioli in a jalapeno cheddar tortilla.

Fong’s Crab Rangoon Pizza has been a longtime favorite order for guests at the downtown pizzeria.

Chris Diebel is a partner at both Teddy Maroon’s and Bubba. He told us his best-selling appetizers were cornflake chicken tenders and blistered shishito peppers at TM and the pimento
cheese board and deviled eggs at Bubba. His most requested sandwiches at TM are the Teddy Roosevelt (prime rib with peppers, Jack and aioli) and the blackened burger with bacon, cheese, guacamole and crema. TM’s top entrées are meatloaf and filet with fettuccini, and Bubba’s are pan-fried chicken and chicken-fried steak.

Marc Navailles of Bistro Nomad said his bestselling appetizers are the tapas board, baked clams and hummus. His best selling entrees are paella, lamb chops and couscous.

Tony Lemmo of Gusto and Aposto at Café di Scala says his cavatelli is always his most popular pasta dish and mussels steamed with ground fennel his most popular appetizer. His Maria wedding cake is the most requested dessert. ♦

One Comment

  1. Francios Villon says:

    Exactly the sort of crepuscular attitude that got Trump elected.

    Ou sont les Duncans d’antan?

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