CHOICE Awards – Cityview’s Hall Of Iowa Culinary Excellence4/5/2017
Culinary trend setters — Third Annual CHOICE Awards
The idea for the CHOICE awards originated 14 years ago and was inspired by Japan’s Living National Treasures. That program honors “preservers of important intangible cultural properties.” In the years after World War II, anxiety arose in Japan that their unique cultural traditions — noh, kabuki, origami, kumi, sumo, teapot ceramics, etc. — might be swamped by the conquering western culture. By honoring revered masters of these arts, they saved them.
Our original intention was to do something similar for Iowa’s venerable food pioneers. That evolved into a hall of fame for people and food institutions that gave our city and state a singular quality and/or identity. Cityview’s Hall of Iowa Culinary Excellence (CHOICE) awards began at a time when locals rued the passing of two of the most memorable food icons in Iowa history. The Younkers Tea Room was lost in a fire, and Dahl’s stores converted into Price Choppers.
For the charter edition of the awards, we focused on venerability — enduring traditions and pioneers. The Japanese word “sabi” refers to a kind of beauty that is attained by aging, when an object’s elegance is evidenced by a changing patina. The word is most often applied to tea pots whose glaze has been changed by decades and even centuries of having tea intentionally poured over the top to drip down over the pot. In that spirit, our charter members in 2015 all had histories dating back to mid 20th century. Several topped more than a century of service to central Iowa. The following year’s class of honorable food pioneers was younger, but all blazed new trails that influenced the culinary scene of Des Moines in unique ways. This year, we expand upon both categories of excellence.
In 1961, with a $500 loan, Richard and Antonia Mosqueda began serving their signature flour tacos at their “A Hole in the Wall” café on the corner of Euclid & Searle. In September of 1962, they opened a new restaurant, Acapulco Café, in the former Lighthouse Grill at 109 E. 14th St. A new store at 2033 Hubbell Ave., advertising Lenten tacos, pizza, burgers and tacos, was called both Taco House and Tasty Tacos in early ads. Soon after, their store at 2224 Easton was advertising “California’s favorite snack,” and “a dozen enchiladas or a tostadas for 19 cents each.” The Tasty Tacos name quickly became the name of all their stores.
The restaurant has been named Des Moines’ “best Mexican restaurant” and “best place for a $5 lunch” by Cityview readers and “best taco in Iowa” by the Food Network. Their taco also made the final four of Cityview’s Ultimate Sandwich poll.
Today second, third and even fourth generations of the family operate three stores in Des Moines and one each in Ankeny, Urbandale and West Des Moines. None would ever be described as a “hole in the wall.” The family’s long time motto is “Nada Es Imposible” or “Nothing Is Impossible,” and it remains the driving force behind the business. The original flour taco is by far their best seller and the item for which the company is known. It’s a flour tortilla that is made from scratch, so they differ in size and shape. It’s deep fried, in canola oil, and stuffed with secretly seasoned ground beef, beans, Wisconsin cheddar cheese and lettuce. Today it can also be made with steak, chicken, pork or beans and sells for $2.75-$3.25. Enchiladas, burritos, tostadas, nachos, corn tacos, bunuelos, crispos, chocos and cookies are also on the menu now.
Ironically, the flour treats have given Des Moines, the capital of “the corn state,” a reputation for representing wheat, a crop that Iowa ranks next to last in producing.
Ralph Compiano grew up in his father Rocky’s steakhouse on Fleur Drive. The restaurant began in 1941 when Des Moines’ southern border ended at Watrous. Barely regulated at all, the restaurant was also farm-producing much of what the restaurant used. Ralph recalls the farm producing all the chickens for some 1,800 chicken dinners a week and still selling birds to other places.
The restaurant changed its name in 1963 to Rocky’s White Shutter Inn “because we wanted to sell Chinese food and not be known as just a steakhouse.” Rocky sold that restaurant to Gary Fatino in 1972. Ralph would go on to open Compiano’s restaurants on Douglas, in the former Vic’s Tally Ho, and on Ingersoll, in the former Garbo’s.
Eric Ziebold is Iowa’s most famous chef nationally and internationally. Born in 1972, he began his career at Aunt Maude’s in Ames and still credits Matt Nichols as his first mentor. Because he spent more time in restaurants than in classes at the University of Northern Iowa, he transferred to the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he worked at two legendary restaurants — Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills and Jeffrey Buben’s Vidalia in Washington, D.C. He made his reputation next heading the kitchen at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Napa Valley. He worked there from 1996 to 2003 when he moved to New York City to open Keller’s Per Se. Two years ago, Keller came to Des Moines on a book tour. Asked how such a small market town made his itinerary, he said, “I had to see the place that Eric came from.”
In 2004 Ziebold left Keller to open his own City Zen in the Washington, D.C. Mandarin Oriental. He won numerous awards there including a best chef Mid-Atlantic James Beard and Forbes’ “most influential chefs working in America,” alongside Dan Barber, Tony Colicchio and Grant Achatz. He also revamped the hotel’s daily restaurant from an Asian themed place to an American café Sou’wester. He would change that concept two years later to Muze.
In 2014, Ziebold left the Mandarin Oriental to open a small café in D.C. with his wife Célia Laurent. The hotel decided to close City Zen, despite its brilliant reputation, rather than carry on without Ziebold. The couple’s endeavor became two separate restaurants in the same building. Kinship is an informal a la carte restaurant, and Métier is a seven-course tasting room below. Specialties include stroganoff that nods to Iowa with morels and sweetbreads; whole roasted lobes of Hudson Valley foie gras served family-style; Osetra caviar with potato chips; surf clams; Rohan ducks; and four pound roasted Black Feather chickens.
The menus are of five categories: craft (dishes that highlight a certain cooking technique); history (classics revisited); ingredients; indulgence; and “for the table” as in family-style platters. Sometimes Ziebold offers Iowa-inspired dishes like “deconstructed steak de Burgo” and his take on Anderson Erickson sour cream dip. He asks friends to bring that AE treat when they visit.
Bruce Gerleman made his name in Iowa by rescuing historic buildings and refurbishing them. He found that restaurants made sensible tenants, but that some restaurant owners were delinquent renters. So he decided to become his own tenant in 1998 in the historic Homestead Building. An avid Caribbean fisherman, Gerleman focused on a jet-fresh menu with daily deliveries and lavish furnishings that include ostrich hide upholstery. A decade later, he opened Splash Oyster Bar in the same building.
Gerleman also created six area Jethro’s, barbecues with slightly different themes in each location. Those focus on things Iowa is better known for, such as huge servings and primal cuts of meat. They stand out from most barbecues because of the quality of side dishes, many with recipes from chef Dom Iannarelli’s repertoire at Splash. Jethro’s has won numerous awards and much media attention for its ability to satisfy giant appetites.
SHAD KIRTON, DARREN WARTH AND MOE CASON
On the subject of barbecue, no state has seen its reputation rise faster than Iowa in the last 10 years. Shad Kirton, Darren Warth and Moe Cason deserve most of the credit for that. All three have built national names on the competition circuit.
Kirton won the largest prize in barbecue history in season two of the TLC show American Pitmasters. Warth has won every major American competition — Jack Daniels, American Royal, World’s Houston, etc. — some multiple times. Cason has won his share of awards but stars more in his roles as national spokesman for Big Green Egg and Little Caesar’s pizza. He appeared on the original edition of “The Harry Connick Show” and has taught the art of barbecue in Sweden, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. He also served as ambassador for Smithfield Pork for four years.
All also share their good licks with Des Moines. Kirton and wife Angie own Kue’d, Food Dude’s choice for the top new restaurant in 2016. Warth and wife Sherry own Smokey D’s. Cason sells out of a food truck at the Drake Relays and other festivals.
FULL COURT PRESS
It is typical in the restaurant business that a successful place will breed clones and imitators. Andy Massoth, Dan Massoth, Tracy Maughan, Jeff Bruning, Scott Alongi, Kent Middendorf and Chris Mayo began by starting a single restaurant, Buzzard Billy’s, in 1999. Court Avenue at that time was still reeling from the flood of 1993. There was little foot traffic in the evening. But the partners sensed the future of the area and decided to expand, not with another Buzzard Billy’s, but with completely new concepts in the Court Avenue district.
The English pub Royal Mile, the Belgian bar Red Monk, The German bier haus Hessen Haus, the nostalgia driven High Life Lounge, the 100-plus kegs of El Bait Shop, the Chinese pizza tiki lounge Fong’s Pizza, and the southern style Mullets followed. This amazing love of diversity and originality gave the South of Walnut area downtown a brand on which few cities Des Moines’ size can dream.
Known now as Full Court Press, this band of friends has added a score of new partners, plus restaurants outside the Court district — University Library Café, Iowa Taproom and a second Fong’s in Ankeny. They have built further buzz for the city by creating local versions of festivals such as Oktoberfest and Cinco de Mayo.
They have shaped the face of millennial Des Moines more than all the politicians in town combined.
In 1985, I was living in Southern California. Iowa qualified for the Rose Bowl that season, and a large contingent of Hawkeye fans came visiting. One evening before the game, 12 of us walked into a favorite restaurant of mine. A hostess noticed that many were wearing Iowa sweatshirts and, even before seating us, warned “Just so you know, we don’t have ‘the orange kind of French dressing.’ ”
Long before Iowans heard of vinaigrette, French dressing here was orange and super sweet. In Nebraska it was known as Dorothy Lynch, but boomers who grew up in central Iowa knew it as Mrs. Clark’s. That company began here in the 1920s and also turned Iowans on to a rather unique mayonnaise that included mustard seeds. It’s not just an Iowa thing anymore. The company exports an industry-leading 100,000 cases of that mayo to the Arabian Peninsula each month. It’s also the leading mayo provider to Tanzania.
The formerly farmer-owned business is now an Ankeny company controlled by a Chicago family equity fund. Yet it keeps its identity. Mrs. Clark’s has avoided absorption by larger companies, an industry trend. In fact they have expanded into juices, sauces and marinades. They are also expanding their manufacturing site in Ankeny. ♦
CHOICE CHARTER MEMBERS
• Mr. V’s (206 Indianola Ave.)
• Noah’s Ark (2400 Ingersoll Ave.)
• Tursi’s Latin King (2200 Hubbell Ave.)
• Graziano Brothers (1601 S. Union St.)
• George the Chili King (5722 Hickman Road)
• Crouse Café (115 E. Salem Ave., Indianola)
• In’t Veld’s Meat Market’s Pella bologna (820 Main St., Pella)
• Maytag Cheese (800-247-2458)
• The Iowa State Fair
• Anderson Erickson Dairy (2420 E. University Ave.)
• B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli (2001 S.E. Sixth St.)
Pam and Harry Bookey
David and Simon Cotran
Kathy and Herb Eckhouse
Lisa and Mike LaValle
Full Court Press