Updating the Mexican restaurant scene1/9/2013
In greater Des Moines, new national chain restaurants debut amidst a barrage of hype. Openings last year of Twin Peaks, Whole Foods and Chick-fil-A became publicity circuses attracting campers and live television news reports. Even smaller Iowa companies like Pizza Ranch and The Other Place attracted huge crowds here from their first days of service in the suburbs.
On the opposite end of the hoopla-meter, new Latino restaurants often open in awareness vacuums. If you don’t regularly check the small ads in the local Spanish language newspapers, you might not notice a new place for years. Even many long-established Latino cafés lack Internet presences. Couple that with the fact that more new Latino restaurants have been opening lately than any other genre, and it’s easy for some to get lost in plain sight. This new year seemed like a good time to pay more attention to some Latino restaurants that I have neglected.
Islas del Pacifco moved into Tapatia Plaza last year between Tequila’s Liquor store and La Tapatia supermarket. The café looks like coastal Mexico with Saltillo tile floors, marlin trophies and a full, thatched bar. Soccer games were shown silently on two TVs while conjunto, norteño and tejano music played. Several readers think Islas is the best Latino joint in town for seafood, which dominates the menu. I liked the way they presented ceviches — chopped and mixed on a large plate with slices of lime and avocado. Beside the usual Saltines, fried, whole tortillas accompanied the dish so one could make tostadas. A special oyster plate delivered raw oysters covered with chopped squid, crab and shrimp. The house’s green salsa was the hottest I have encountered locally. Their red was mild.
A “mocaljete Cora” brought a large mortar overflowing with crab, shrimp, mussels, squid and octopus. A whole grilled huacinango (red snapper) was served in several styles. I chose an excellent garlic version with fresh cloves inserted in the fish with rice and mixed vegetables on the side. A specialty of the house stuffed halved pineapples with chopped seafood.
In a former Earl May on Fleur Drive, Old West has more presence than most Mexican joints. On my visits, it bustled with a large percentage of non-Latino diners. Several styles of kitsch were amalgamated. Faux antique wagon wheels adorned walls beside sombreros, Chivas (soccer team) pennants and the kind of mass-produced paintings tourists buy on both sides of the Tex- Mex border. Two large HD TVs played silently while music pounded out only bass tones, as if it were being played loudly on the other side of a wall. A full bar featured cheap margaritas in many sizes.
Service was fast and friendly. Chips and mild salsa appeared before I had taken off my coat.
The menu was encyclopedic yet waiters assumed that customers were ready to order in a few seconds. Options included fajitas, combinations, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, tacos, tostadas, burritos, carnitas, salads, soups and desserts. There was very little seafood other than shrimp. Burger was standard in all dishes served in combos. Chiles were served with stems attached but oozed cheese sauce and were tough to cut or chew. Almost every dish I tasted was covered in the same orange sauce. The exception was the most interesting — an enchiladas special that included three different stuffings (cheese, burger and chicken) with three different sauces, in the “tres colores” of the Mexican flag. CV
Waterfront’s annual Risotto Night, with fresh fish, scallops and shrimp, will be Jan. 16… Splash’s Wine Education series ($40, last Tuesday of the month) will feature regions instead of grape varieties this year.