Food pride soared in 20181/2/2019
Harbinger is our choice for restaurant of the year again, as is Joe Tripp for chef of the year.
Iowa has always been identified with food, not always in a flattering way. Yet all things change drastically and often
before they are obvious. In my lifetime, our state has gone from the nation’s leading cattle producer to a minority
player in that game, from a state of family farmers to one of industrial farms mostly owned by outsiders, and from a
state with a rural majority population to one where most people live in cities and their suburbs. Because things
change so fast, and because our identity is still tied to the foods we produce and eat, this magazine asked this food
writer to assess the changes annually. Here we go.
The food and beverage industry was dynamic in the city, the state and the nation in 2018. Locally, restaurant
openings exceeded closings, ending three quarters of downturn after almost unchecked growth since Jordan Creek Town Center opened in 2004.
Farmers particularly fretted over the news. A stormy spring and early summer put pressure on crops, with wheat suffering the most and bread prices rising. Farmland prices were reported to be down 16 percent from their 2013 peak. Tariff increases were a particular concern for hog farmers and a hopeful harbinger for dairy farmers. The dairy business reeled in 2018. Wisconsin alone lost 500 dairy farms in 2017 and was on pace to lose that many this year. That state’s total number of dairy cows has dropped 20 percent in five years.
Ironies move in multiple directions on this subject: The price of beef rose, while milk prices slid; chapter 12
bankruptcy, which was rampant in dairy states last year, was created by Congress 40 years ago in response to
another farm crisis; consumers outnumber farmers, and the former prefer low milk prices, so Congress is not in a
hurry to change the status quo.
President Trump, on the other hand, frequently pointed to Canadian tariffs on U.S. dairy products, some 275 percent, as justification for his crusade to level the tariff playing field.
Death was the No. 1 story in the Iowa food scene last year. Gov. Bob Ray’s passing was treated with stately respect for his many achievements. From our point of view, he did more than anyone to transform Iowa, and
particularly Des Moines, into a more cosmopolitan food center, and far more than anyone even dreamed before Ray took office in 1969. By sheer force of personality, he convinced an insular, leery, mostly white population to embrace broken immigrants from Southeast Asia. The payoff of that karmic trigger was that those immigrants lived
to build restaurants and supermarkets here that introduced Iowans to a wide new world of culinary adventure. Latinos followed and did similar things. For many who lived during Ray’s five terms, and others who came here later, he will be our one and only “Gov.”
Our city also said goodbye to one of our greatest bon vivants — Jerry Jewett. That smiley lumber man enriched the lives of the many friends who ever broke bread or toasted drinks with him. Jewett’s appreciation for the restaurant
and bar workers of town led him, to the demand of his daughter, that any celebration of his life be held on a Sunday, so that those workers could attend. His good friend Bob Conley will host that ceremony at the Mercy
Holiday Inn on Jan. 6.
The suicide of food “story teller” Anthony Bourdain stung people in the restaurant world. Tony seemed to have the life that everyone else just dreamed about, traveling all over the world to tell tales about the things we eat. In books and on TV, he educated us like no “journalist” ever did. Bourdain probably did more than anyone else for Des Moines’ Asian restaurant scene, telling a full house at the Civic Center that our city has “some fabulous Vietnamese
Des Moines folk treat the death of venerable cafés similarly to the loss of a family member. The closing of Sam & Gabe’s two restaurants devastated many longtime customers. That café went through three sets of owners in its last five years. The middle set completely changed the menu and recipes, and the third set tried to restore the originals. It was apparently too late. It’s not that we’re close minded about new things. We just don’t want anyone messing with our traditional old favorites.
The closing of the Kaleidoscope ended the long run for several vendors in this downtown food court. Sally’s excellent old fashion burgers and JJ Jasmine Thai Cuisine will be particularly missed. The popular Southeast Asian café Lemongrass closed on Eighth Street in West Des Moines but promised to return farther west.
The area also said goodbye to Michael Leo’s Strudl Haus, a delightful Austrian café and bakery on Southwest Ninth, to Tag and Meg Grandgeorge’s Le Jardin in Beaverdale, to the Fort Des Moines Hotel’s Django (the restaurant reopened later in a new venue), and to Steve and Kristi Little’s Chef’s Kitchen, a Beaverdale stalwart. Owners of Le Jardin and Strudl Haus mentioned the labor market as back breakers. Chef’s Kitchen was sold to Jason Simon (Alba, Eatery A, Harbinger), which softened the blow. Woody’s sold its much-loved BBQ on Cottage Grove, but new owners changed little. Though they had not been around that long, fans also rued the last days of Marlene’s, the Drake Bordi’s, and Saison. Nick’s, the award-winning tenderloin purveyor, closed its West Glen store and also closed and reopened its flagship store on Army Post Road.
NEW KIDS IN TOWN
In our opening to this story, we mentioned more restaurant births than deaths. That wasn’t even close this year. Probably the brightest thread holding the new joints together was their ethnic diversity. Many of the new places are sweet upgrades from previous status quo. Amaravati, which opened in the former Kurry Xpress, is a huge improvement and an excellent Indian café by any standards. The Hyderabadi-style restaurant has new things, like homemade buttermilk, as well as all the great dum traditions of South Asia’s most famous food city. Puerto Rico ristorante may be Des Moines’ first Boricua café, but they would be deemed excellent in any town. Lazaza brought superb Pakistani/Indian cuisine to the Drake area.
Sushi options increased. Jay Wang opened his fourth Wasabi, this time in Johnston. Hana Ramen and Shobu Sushi both opened in West Des Moines. At press time, Poke Company was hoping to open soon at 300 MLK, a complex with a great eye for up-and-coming chains that have never been to Iowa (Blaze and Fuzzy’s Taco). Poke Company is from Florida. Fusion Bistro, which opened in September on EP True, offered a combination of burgers (they took over BW Burger’s space), ramen, poke, sushi and sushi tacos. That’s true fusion.
Brazilian style steakhouses opened on Ingersoll and in Clocktower Square. Twenty years ago, the same type of restaurant, serving “carved at the table” grilled meats, were called Argentine restaurants. The change to “Brazilian” seemed to lift the genre to national prosperity even though it only related to the most southern part of Brazil, that near Argentina. The difference between the two new joints is interesting. Terra Grill in Clocktower offers lunch at about half the just-less-than-$40 price of all-you-can-eat dinners. BAH on Ingersoll is only open for dinner at about the same full price. Only Terra has menu options that are not all you can eat.
Clocktower is evolving into Des Moines’ coolest strip mall. The Fresh Thyme Farmers Market has poached many a bargain hunter from Whole Foods. Gusto only sells its Chicago deep dish at its Clocktower store. Waterfront remains the area’s only great purveyor of retail fish. Its oyster bar is packed on Saturday afternoons for special deals. Ohana is the only Japanese style steakhouse in town. Non-food outlets in the plaza are equally eccentric.
Lola’s Fine Kitchen, a Pakistani and Filipino café, opened in Ankeny with delightful options to mix and match the two cuisines. Owners are the same doctors who founded the superb Lola’s Fine Hot Sauces. The Full Court Press gang opened a new chicken-themed restaurant in Orilla Township, in the former digs of Bambino’s and Rusty Spikes. Fried, broasted and spicy chicken dishes, similar to those popular at High Life Lounge, are offered. The Chicken was ordered to remove its handsome 8-foot tall chicken sculpture. He was deemed too tall for West Des Moines, which has annexed Orilla. Apparently West Des Moines is particularly sensitive to the feelings of poultry with Napoleonic complexes. Hidalgo Mexican Bar and Grill opened in Urbandale. Harvey’s owners reopened the David’s Milwaukee Diner space in the venerable Hotel Pattee.
The popular Iowa City café Dumpling Darling debuted a store in East Village to overwhelming crowds. They actually had to close down at least three times to catch supply up with demand. Central Standard Craft Burgers and Beer opened in Waukee. The restaurant, which kicked off in Bettendorf, serves house-made burgers, on brioche rolls, craft beer and milkshakes. Nick Tillinghast, Kyle McClain and Ryan Hutchinson, who brought the stylish bar Hello, Marjorie to downtown Des Moines last year, announced the opening of a tiki bar called Bellhop on Grand Avenue in East Village soon.
Some chef moves brought new dynamics into play. Former Le Jardin owner Tag Grandgeorge briefly became chef at Teddy Maroon’s but left before the official opening. Jacob Demars, formerly of Marlene’s, is now running the kitchen at Trostel’s Dish. We suggest checking that out. Chef Derek Eidson moved from Centro to Django, where he became a partner.
Hamburger chains, some say expensive chains, continued to invade Des Moines. Wahlburgers opened its first area store with plans to add many more in partnership with Hy-Vee. Steak & Shake, which is inexpensive compared to others, announced it was coming to western West Des Moines. It will join an area that already has a Zombie Burger, a Fuddrucker’s, a Five Guys Burger & Fries (the busiest store in the chain during its first three months here) and a Red Robin, plus several sports bars that usually specialize in burgers and wings.
Chicken also became the rage of franchises. The overwhelming success of Chik-fil-A, whose per store profits are by far the highest in the industry (despite being closed on Sundays), has created imitators. Raising Cane’s and Wingstop rushed into the area while other older chains introduced new chicken products. KFC announced waffles and vegan chicken.
McDonalds also inspired imitators after its profits soared since the introduction of its $1 $2 $3 menu. Every big chain then tried similar deals. Other trends included a continuation of production of meat and fish alternatives and gut-friendly foods that can be cultured in the stomach like kim chi, miso and kefir leaves.
HONORS FOR THE CITY
Des Moines continued to dominate on the competitive BBQ circuit with Smoky D’s owners Darren and Sherry Warth leading the way. Iowa breweries again won major prizes in beer competitions helping Full Court Press open even more craft taps. They have way more than 200 now at El Bait Shop alone.
Harbinger’s Joe Tripp was again the only Iowa chef named a regional semifinalist for any James Beard Award. Sadly, Iowa has lost significant influence on the Beard panel since Rick Nelson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune retired as Midwest director four years ago. Bon Appétit Magazine named Cheese Bar on Ingersoll one of the nation’s top neighborhood cafés.
TV chef Guy Fieri came back to Flying Mango for the debut of his newest show “Triple D.”
RESTAURANT AND CHEF OF THE YEAR
Harbinger is our choice again this year as Joe Tripp is our choice as chef of the year. He keeps things fresh with research and travel. No one does more with pickling and inventing new applications for seasonal vegetables. An author this year, at the end of a 50-city book tour, told us that Harbinger was the best place she had found.
WORST IDEA OF THE YEAR
IHOP wins easily for its quickly retracted campaign to rebrand as IHOb, for International House of burgers.
WORST SOURCE OF INFORMATION
This was another runaway victory. Thrillist takes the honor from our perspective for having no idea what Iowa, and particularly Des Moines, is about. The rag named Iowa the 45th best food state, behind such places as Arkansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Wisconsin.
TOP SOURCE OF FOOD INFORMATION
This was another easy win. Lucky Peach is probably the best food publication of all time. At least if you are not counting the times when R.W. Apple was “food-correspondent at large” for the New York Times.
NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Strictly speaking of the quality of food, we are going with Amaravati. Including ambiance and its ilk, the new Django is tops. ♦