Change is good for two Latino cafés1/16/2013
For Latino restaurants in Des Moines, the last 20 years brought the best of times and the worst of times. On the latter part of that Dickensian paradox, three different restaurants named Margarita’s have all come and gone. On the positive side, hard-working individuals have parlayed taco trucks and bare-boned tacquerias into full-scale restaurants (El Chisme) and even shopping centers (Tapatia Plaza). A long overdue return to El Rey Burritos revealed that sometimes such good fortune comes disguised.
When Aurelio Hernandez opened a dozen years ago at Grand Avenue and Vine Street, El Rey became the west side’s first tacqueria serving multiple homemade salsas, carnitas, asada, pastor and breakfast. When he extended weekend hours to 3 a.m., it became a favorite haunt of restaurant and bar professionals looking for something good to eat after work. When El Rey’s lease expired three years ago, the restaurant was pushed out of its strip mall venue to make room for a video store. Regular customers despaired.
Then Hernandez found a new, larger spot in Normandy Plaza, just two blocks west. This location, with parking and entrances on both the east and west sides of its strip mall, allowed him to expand his kitchen and add a full bar. El Rey’s current three-page menu fits in a sweet spot between the epic-sized menus of most large Mexican restaurants and the simple blackboard fare of many tacquerias. El Rey now serves fajitas, seafood, regional specialties, combo platters, a vegetarian menu, salads and desserts besides the original tacqueria fare. Burrito offerings have been supersized, and a kids’ menu is now available. I enjoyed milanesa (chicken fried steak) and carne Tampiqueña (Tampico style steak, with an enchilada on the side). Chiles rellenos delivered stem-on poblano peppers with real, melted cheese — not the oozing Latino version of Cheese Whiz that has become too common in Des Moines. Enchiladas were clearly handmade when ordered. Combo platters came with each item covered in a completely different salsa, none resembling the ubiquitous industrial sauce that covers too many such plates in town. Special requests for substitutions were happily executed.
On Hubbell Avenue, the Marcial Leiva family runs the area’s latest pupuseria, La Cuscatleca. Their venue has housed more Latino restaurants than I can remember. All were quite good, and yet all are long gone. I think this place will stick around. It bustled on my visits. BEIN-TV (Al Jazeera’s sport network, which owns exclusive rights to Spanish and Italian soccer games) played for several interested folks without bothering others. Friendly service explained that the restaurant also operates a food truck on Second Avenue that will soon move to the parking lot of “the Chinese store on Sixth Avenue.”
This Salvadoran café has a very brief menu featuring pupusas (corn pancakes) stuffed with cheese, chicharron (a pâté of pork rather than pork skin as in Mexican restaurants), refried beans, loroco (a nutty flavored, unopened flower bud) and squash. Appetizers included tamales, yuca (fried roots of squash) and fried plantains. All were perfectly executed taste treats. Each pupusa was served with two red salsas — one considerably hotter than the other — and a chile-free curtido (slaw) of cabbage, carrots and vinegar. A nine-year colleague described her pupusa revuelta (stuffed with everything) better than I can.
“It’s like the best toasted cheese sandwich you’ll ever have,” she told her dubious older brother.
Side Dishes Alba instigated an all-night Happy Hour each Monday, featuring $5 specialty cocktails and $5 burgers in the bar… Luna’s new winter menu features glazed quail, lamb ribs and stout beer milkshakes along with more familiar fare. CV