Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Paula’s sweet nostalgia


Lunch counters have gone the way of soda fountains. When most folks liked Ike, and Ozzie & Harriet ruled the airwaves, both genres were ubiquitous. Then teenagers found less innocent places to hang out, and at least half a dozen downtown lunch counters gave way to urban renewal projects. Their day had probably already passed. They had thrived in an era when stay-at-home moms cooked breakfast and dinner. Lunch was the most common meal eaten out. Some downtown lunch counters would open for breakfast, but mostly they kept to mid-day hours during weekdays. They depended upon cheap real estate to make it on such limited schedules.

Beef and noodles on mashed potatoes at Paula’s.

Beef and noodles on mashed potatoes at Paula’s.

Paula’s is a sweet anachronism. The Valley Junction lunch spot still features a counter and several booths. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There is a small-town feeling here. Most customers seem to know each other and the staff. A large sign on the wall reads, “You had many choices, and you chose us. We are grateful.” My experiences at Paula’s indicate that’s sincere. The menu is filled with recipes that recall a time when cooks worked from scratch. Chili, goulash, beef and noodle, potato and tomato soups took no short cuts. They are so popular that they were sold by the pint ($6) and quart ($10) as well as by the cup ($3.25) or bowl ($4.50). Noodles were thick egg noodles. Beef was tender pot roast.

Daily specials sold out early. All have fans that time their visits accordingly. Monday reminds me of childhood — homemade tomato soup with toasted cheese sandwich, or ham and cheese. Tuesdays featured hot beef sandwiches on real homemade mashed potatoes. Wednesdays were hot turkey days. Thursdays featured sausage sandwiches with french fries. Fridays starred stunningly good homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy. All daily specials included a drink and cost $9.

The sandwich menu also featured nostalgic dishes. Egg salad, tuna salad and chicken salad sandwiches ($4, or $8.50 with two sides and a drink) are popular. So are hot dogs and chili dogs. The side dishes were 60-year-old throwbacks — potato salad, cottage cheese, chocolate pudding and baked beans.

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The superstar of Paula’s menu is the loose meat sandwich. Once upon a time, this was a Maid-Rite. That was before the modern era of Maid-Rite Inc. Rather than convert to standardized recipes and protocols, Paula’s gave up its franchise. Their loose meat sandwiches ($4-$5.50) are more generous with meat than what most that Maid-Rite’s serve. They are also less seasoned. Some people order this meat by the bowl and the cup.

Nice little touches include breaded pork tenderloins, onion rings, fried pickles, fish and chicken sandwiches. There are several salads and combos that offer good value. One can choose two from a list that includes loose meat sandwich, salad, soup, plus a drink for $7.50

Bottom line — This is as close as one can get in the metro to dining out during the Eisenhower administration. If you miss soda fountains as much as lunch counters, Paula’s also serves malts, shakes and root beer floats.

Side Dishes. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. EPA’s approval of Dow Chemical’s honeybee insecticide sulfoxaflor… Susan Stapleton, described as a blogger with a “huge following” in Las Vegas, was named the new food writer for The Des Moines Register, replacing Jennifer Mitchell Miller, who resigned this summer and took a job in the insurance industry. In her introductory column in the Register, Stapleton wrote that Register restaurant critic Carlos Acevedo was also stepping aside. She described him as “long time Datebook Diner,” although his term was barely three years, compared to 14 years for his predecessor, Wini Moranville. That made one old newshound wonder, “Does the new Register now mark time in dog years?” CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

524 Elm St., Valley Junction, 277-3404
Mon. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

One Comment

  1. Marshall Grabau says:

    Jim Duncan–
    I develop classes for Drake University’s Ray Society For Lifelong Learning. I’d like to explore the potential for using as a presenter for sessions dealing with Des Moines restaurants, including the “:history of restaurants” in DM. Please contact me at your convenience.

    Marshall Grabau
    Phone: 515.224.0138

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