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Nick’s draws buzz of bargain diners

10/10/2012

Queen-sized tenderloin at Nick’s, 4100 S.W. Ninth St., 777-2759. Open Mon. – Sat. 10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Recession changes the way we eat. Look at the performance charts of both high- and low-end restaurant chains over the last 10 years. A new McDonalds Era began during the stock market meltdown of 2008. That’s no surprise; we all have to eat within our budgets. Food and travel TV lineups during the last decade show that recessions even change the way we dream about food, or at least the way network executives think the rest of us dream about food. Before the meltdown, glamorous food dominated that genre. Martha Stewart was queen of the best of everything. Andrew Zimmern of “Bizarre Food” would even take time off from trudging through jungles, in search of insects and bowels, to devote entire shows to the world’s finest restaurants.                

The meltdown changed that. Hollywood glamour-child Giada de Laurentis’ extravagant “Weekend Getaways” debuted in 2007 and disappeared a year later. Guy Fieri’s down to earth “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” premiered a few months before Giada’s show and is still top-rated. This year’s big, new, food-and-travel show is “$24 in 24” in which “Sandwich King” Jeff Mauro visits cities seeking three good meals and a snack on a $24 budget. That’s $16 less than Rachel Ray had to work with on a similar “budget travel” show 10 years earlier.                

Des Moines is loaded with good $24-a-day material. In fact, Mauro could shoot an entire episode without leaving Southwest Ninth Street where Sam’s Egg Roll, Henry J’s, Jim’s Coney Island, Fat Tuesday, Noodle’s and Bordanaro’s have been providing superb bargains for years. Nick’s is the latest hot, new thing for both Southwest Ninth and value dining. Nick Iaria and Joe Madonia opened last month in an old Maid-Rite. Their two-room café is bright with an open kitchen and a single silent TV. They keep their menu simple with just three sandwiches — tenderloins, Italian beef and sausage, plus fries, onion rings, cheese curds, cole slaw and fried peppers with corn dogs and chicken strips for kids. They originally served shrimp po’ boys but took them off the menu for lack of interest after a few days.                

Their tenderloins are drawing big crowds and word-of-mouth buzz. On Nick’s first Friday, a dozen people were still waiting to order at closing time. More than half of all orders include tenderloins. These sandwiches feature a double-dipped batter recipe from Town House restaurant in Wellsburg, one of Iowa’s longstanding tenderloin legends. It won the Iowa Pork Producer’s best tenderloin contest in 2006 and won a “Best of the Best” contest of previous winners last year. Tenderloin super blog Des-Loines rates Town House a nine out of 10.                

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Nick’s served tenderloin sandwiches in three sizes ($3 – $7) as well as on a stick, grilled and in strips. I never saw one that was too dark, even at closing time. My tenderloins were thicker than average — close to an inch on the edges. Breading was crunchy enough to crumb but not so crunchy as to irritate the roof of my mouth. Buns were buttered and toasted. Fried sweet peppers were a marvelous option, even with jalapenos and banana peppers included among the courtesy condiments. Sausage sandwiches ($6, made in-house) were considerably thicker and milder than others in town. Italian beef sandwiches ($7.55) were made from house roasted sirloin with mixed-hot and mild pepper giardiniera. My beef was overcooked, but its jus was magnificent. Onion rings were also thicker than usual and appeared to use the tenderloin batter.

Side Dishes

Noe Ruiz, jovial chef of La Rosa and husband of owner Rosa Martinez, died unexpectedly at age 44 in late September. La Rosa was still closed at press time with no decision about reopening… Chef Andrew Meek has moved from Sbrocco to the Kirkwood Lounge, which is being recreated. CV

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