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Feature Story

Crazy year in food world


dsc_7384If 2016 had been human, it would have been bi-polar and heavily drugged. Trends came and went without regard for recent performances. For instance, a five-year movement toward higher restaurant prices and lower grocery store prices (for prepared foods) continued and increased. Stock analysts were disappointed that Casey’s “same store” sales only grew by 5 percent, in an economy stuck on 1 percent growth for eight years now. Casey’s, incidentally, expanded to its 15th state. Kum & Go also went on a new store spree. Yet, in Des Moines, more new restaurants opened than in any year since we began covering this beat 25 years ago. Simultaneously, the Fresh Market closed stores in West Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, just seven months after building them and opening.

Record-setting harvests for corn did not produce the usual drop in futures prices, probably because of OPEC cuts in oil production. Soybeans and wheat also realized increased harvests and lower prices. In fact, the U.S. experienced the longest run of monthly agricultural price decreases since 1960. Most American exports were badly hurt by a stronger dollar and an artificially weakened Chinese currency, which made U.S. products more expensive overseas.


Carpetbaggers in Iowa

Despite a trend toward eating more locally, metro Des Moines was overrun by a legion of out-of-state companies looking to rip off some share of this market. Most significantly, B&G Foods, best known as the Jolly Green Giant of New Jersey, acquired the spices and seasonings business of ACH Food Companies, the owner of Tone’s, for about $365 million. The sale meant the Giant now owns the Spice Islands, Durkee and Tone’s brands, along with Tone’s Ankeny factory. Kansas City-based Simply Essentials purchased the Cedar River Poultry chicken processing plant in Charles City and promised to invest about $30 million and hire about 250 workers.

Prep Iowa - Pride Month

img_4237Chain restaurants rushed into the area at a pace not seen for a dozen years. While Jimmy John’s of Illinois and Subway of Connecticut continued their long running turf war, the hoagie market also saw newcomers arriving with Firehouse of Florida and Jersey Mike’s joining the mustard rush. Chipotle had its first business downturn since the company bought itself back from McDonald’s in 2006. That seemed to encourage Panchero’s of Coralville and Qdoba of Colorado to expand here.

Similarly, the local pizza scene witnessed Blaze Wood Fired Pies of California and Pie Five of Texas introduce “build your own” $8 pies in similar style to Subway or Chipotle. No limit on ingredients, the same price exists. Marco’s of Ohio, the fastest growing pizza chain in America, also announced it would be opening several metro outlet stores. Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut responded with some lower prices.

The most anticipated local franchise opening though was Five Guys Burger & Fries in the Jordan Creek area of West Des Moines. Crowds camped out waiting to be one of the first in town to try the legendary store’s free peanuts, freshly cut french fries and large burgers. It was the largest opening turnout here since Chick-fil-A opened directly across the street a couple of years ago.

Turnout has also been strong for North Carolina steakhouse Firebird’s Wood Fired Grill. On the buffet front, Golden Corral took over all Ryan’s and Old Country joints nationally. China International and Ming’s Dynasty both closed, while Hy-Vee continued to expand its Chinese prepared food sections, another example of consumer’s turning to supermarket carryout over restaurants.


Nostalgic transitions

The metro slowly adapted to the loss of several long-standing traditions. The former Ankeny Dahl’s was, in part, converted into a stylish sports bar/family restaurant called The Fletcher after the town’s founding father. Two of Des Moines’ three oldest Chinese restaurants closed last New Year’s Eve. Hing Wong’s Kwong Tung was replaced by Sam Auen’s latest brainstorm — Krunkwich, a ramen and banh mis shop, plus Piu Piu Dim Sum. Great China became the latest Home Plate Diner. Also, Red China Bisto downsized, changed into Zon’s and then became Candela, a Mexican place. El Barco upgraded a former Godfather’s store on Hickman.

Gino’s, by some measures Des Moines’ oldest restaurant, served its last pan fried chicken and pasta plates before being converted into an almost unrecognizable new Mexican place, El Sol Azteca. Jethro’s did not open a new area store last year, but it did venture into the Italian restaurant business with a bargain-priced, made-from-scratch Jethroni Pepperoni in Altoona. The best looking conversion of the year, though, was what took place at the former Lurra Cocina, a short-lived, much-ballyhooed tapas restaurant in Western Gateway. It became the most gorgeous restaurant since Splash opened. It caters mostly to ladies with chilled wines (even dry reds). Its menu is surprisingly more like sports bar finger food than ladies’ tea room fare.

Similarly, the decade-old Dos Rios was converted to Goldfinch, which, being the state bird of Iowa, suggests a fresh and local theme. It’s another handsome place with Des Moines’ best patio (Gilroy’s and Wellman’s Pub & Patio are in West Des Moines.) Across Court Avenue in the renovated Hotel Randolph, Continental owners worked on a similar concept called Bar Taureau, a cocktail-accented place with charcuturie and appetizers. 1908 opened its newest sports bar there, too. In the happiest transition, Rosie Punelli returned to her old kitchen at the Des Moines Art Center to open Chef’s Palette. Enosh Kelley closed his popular French Bistro Montage. B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli began dry aging beef for 60 days. Des Moines also saw Safari bring the best Ethiopian/Somali/Kenyan restaurant we’ve had here.


Suburban supremacy

dsc_7369The year 2016 was a breakout for some Des Moines suburbs. After decades of being known mostly just for national franchise stores, independent restaurants began contributing their local spins on the foods people love. Waukee particularly distinguished itself with a dramatic run of new ethnic places. After the loss of Great China and Kwong Tung, Shanghai likely became the metro’s top traditional Chinese restaurant. Lately they introduced an excellent Vietnamese menu as well. H’s Pho added another good Southeast Asian option to Waukee. India Tadka brought the town good pan-Indian choices. It also reversed the procedure of most Indian places in the metro by serving a lunch buffet only on weekends rather than only on weekdays. Superstar Jay Wang expanded his Wasabi empire to the Waukee/West Des Moines borderland with a simpler menu than his two Des Moines restaurants have but with the same super-fresh fish. Add those stores to Fresh Mediterranean Express and Waukee becomes the most cosmopolitan suburb in Iowa.

It also added the metro’s top barbecue — Kew’d, a collaboration of former Smokey D’s owners Shad and Angie Kirton. That place elevates itself by freshly cutting all meats when ordered and never refrigerating or reheating them. Shad is also a genius with desserts and unexpected BBQ side dishes like cassoulet and seasonal green apple salad. In a year with many superb new places, Kew’d is our choice for top new restaurant because it does what it does better than anyone else.

Ankeny also improved its restaurant diversity this year. The aforementioned Pie Five and The Fletcher started a run of new places. Lately they were joined by Whiskey River — a riff on the Ames place by the same owners — and Whiskey House & Bourbon Grill. That is a collaboration of Uriah Mixdorf of Whiskey Dick’s and David Baruthio of Baru 66. Ankeny also upped its Southeast Asian game with Pho 85, Pho K&K and Siam Kitchen all operating. The town added a new Zombie Burger, too.

West Des Moines remained ground zero for everything cutting edge in the franchise world. Yet Eighth Street became independently interesting with the addition of the comfort food, three-meals-a-day operation, Gilroy’s. This is the latest concept from Scot Carlson of CABCO and Americana. It becomes a neighbor of the excellent steakhouse Prime Land & Sea, which opened in November 2015 but really came of age this year with the importation of French chef Nico Ebtinger from Atlanta. He is our choice for the top new chef of the year.

However, Clive added what is certainly the top new Latino restaurant of the year — Nacho Tequila. Despite the unappealing name, it rivals Los Laureles as the top place in town after a lovely makeover of the former Saigon.


Trends of the year

Comfort food had a big year with Home Plate expanding, while Gilroy’s, Vivian’s and Bubba all opened. Vivian’s is Jeff Duncan’s (Dos Rios, Trostel’s, Big City Burger + Greens) new restaurant, and he has recruited the legendary chef Jerry Talerico out of retirement. The latter is Des Moines’ original academy-trained, owner-chef, decades ahead of that becoming cool. He sold his Sam & Gabe’s last year. Bubba is more southern oriented than the other two places. Chef Jamie Monaghan is particularly brilliant when it comes to Des Moines’ vanishing species — pie. Marlene’s at Sevastapol Station was another comforting new delight. Their crab bisque is a sensation.

cv_annietombaldwin_0001Sports bars remained the top growth industry in the local restaurant world. That brings us to another occasional honor we bestow at year’s end — restaurateur of the year. Annie and Tom Baldwin had a year to remember. As already discussed, their Magnolia exhales a breath of eternal spring into the Pappajohn Sculpture Park hood. They also opened a third 1908 Draught House, in the Hotel Randolph. That, incidentally, is named for the last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series before 2016. All four of those restaurants, along with the couple’s Wellman’s Pub, Peggy’s Tavern, Wellman’s Pub & Rooftop and Shotgun Betty’s, donated a day’s profits to fallen police officers’ families.

Craft beer also had a huge year, particularly for local brewers. Even the “highest of dives” (Eugene O’Neill named his bar “The High Dive”) is apt to carry a Confluence, a Peace Tree or an Exile these days. That is because Des Moines is filled with excellent brew masters. Highlighting that trend was the latest theme bar from Full Court Press. The Iowa Tap Room in East Village has 120 taps from more than 25 Iowa breweries and is already a bona fide tourist attraction.

New businesses of the year

Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, created by the merger of Sprouts Farmers Market with Sunflower Farmers Market, was purchased by retail behemoth Meijer Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which then expanded into the Midwest including West Des Moines’ Clocktower Square. In a town reeling from the loss of the Dahl’s chain, it was a blessing. It’s also a store for an era when people want to eat healthier foods without spending Whole Foods prices. Produce, fresh fish, freshly squeezed juice and bulk-style dispensers are featured. Prices, though, bring smiles to faces. Weekly sales last eight days, so Wednesdays feature two weeks of bargains.

The re-opening of the old Locust Mall brought the most exciting food court the town has ever seen to the Greater Des Moines Partnership building. Jay Wang’s Teriyaki Boys, Trish Myers’ Moar Tacos’ (Korean style), L’Italiano’s freshly-made pasta and pizza, Jose Ochoa’s Viva Mexico, Burger Shop, Jimmy Chronopoulos’ Jimmy’s Gyros and Jeremy Jessen’s Local Yocals farmhouse are 100 percent local.

Chef of the year

georgeformaro2After asking lots of advice here, we brutally whittled our list of candidates to four. In a year when the state’s number of James Beard semifinalists was reduced from an average of three-and-a-half (over six years) to just one, we started with Joe Tripp of Alba. He was our choice here last year and also the solo Beard honoree. He spent a couple weeks walking around Vietnam this year to learn new tricks.

A professorial class researcher of food history, George Formaro (Centro, Django, Malo, Zombie Burger, Gateway) is Iowa’s most frequent Beard semifinalist. He opened two new Zombies this year and took food study trips to Italy and Quebec. He also hosts a weekly radio show “Kitchen Insider.”

David Baruthio (Baru 66, Blue Tomato, Prime Land + Sea and now Whiskey House and Bourbon Grill) collaborates with many of the best chefs in the world at food festivals. He also returned to Mongolia and China this year for exposure to new ideas along with frequent trips to France and Belgium.

Dom Iannarelli (Jethro’s, Splash, Jethroni Pepperoni) seems to win every charity chef competition we attend. He also traveled a lot this year to learn, particularly on the west coast. No chef in town knows more about wine.

Every one of these guys (plus Sean Wilson, Enosh Kelley, Phil Shires, Tony Lemmo, Jason Simon, Andrew Meek, and Tony Le) was a previous winner of our chef of the year. This year, we are going with our first repeat winner — Formaro for coping with the heaviest workload.

Restaurant of the year cv_foodinreview_alba_0005

Alba gets the nod here for consistency. Tripp is almost always in the kitchen and incorporates the widest variety of fresh farm foods in town. No one experiments more with seldom-seen foods like terrines, headcheese, sweetbreads and Asian vegetables. ♦


  1. Tamra Phipps says:

    Great article! Sorry about Kwon Tung. Always loved that place. My favorite crispy duck (and I have tried crispy duck in many restaurants on three continents). Thanks for introducing me to Alba and assuring me that it is still there. Forget the big chains for me. Des Moines is a marvelous restaurant town for its one-of-a-kinds!

  2. Brian says:

    We have all kinds of great choices in central Iowa… but is there any place that serves good beef ribs? They’ve disappeared from all my favorite restaurants.

  3. Bill Wade says:

    Jim, I REALLY enjoy your article! VERY informative though I have to take exception to your choice of chef of the year. The criteria you use was the number of plates (kitchens) under the chef’s guidance? not what was actually on the on the plate. Had you done that then Chef Joe of Alba should have been the winner!

  4. Fannie says:

    Do the Baldwin’s also own Blu Toro?

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