New kids in the skywalk10/7/2015
Two weeks ago, we wrote a paean here to the wind-grieved luncheonettes of central Iowa. We mentioned that they were victims of urban renewal and moms joining the workplace. One wily reader reminded us that we had forgotten a third likely reason for their demise in Des Moines — the skywalk system. That creation of the 1970s represented what its chief advocate, former mayor Dick Olson, called “a big win for downtown at a time the city was desperate for one.” The skywalk and its food court connections added numerous quick options for lunch without stepping outdoors. Some of the city’s best chefs got their starts in the skywalk. George Formaro (Centro, Django, Malo, Zombie Burger, Gateway Market Café) was working at Winston’s when Colorado restaurateur Joe Carey began Eat at Joe’s, and Steve (Lucca) and Joe (La Mie) Logsdon were selling their baked delights from a cart parked near Younker’s skywalk entrance.
The skywalk has delivered growth and action to downtown now for four decades. However, street-level, stand-alone cafés have been decimating its lunch business. The Younker’s fire hurt a lot, too. Last week I spent three lunch hours in the skywalk system east of Younkers. While the Kaleidoscope Food Court still has 10 of a possible 12 vendors operating, one dominates the others. On two separate occasions, I counted people in line at all 10 places several times over 45 minutes. Almost without exception, more customers attended Subway than the other nine combined. A Palmer’s outlet, just a short distance down the system from the food court, was also packed. Does everyone eat big sandwiches for lunch these days?
The other current tenants in that food court represent considerable diversity — Thai, sushi, burger, Italian, Maid-Rite, Chinese, Mexican and stuffed potatoes. The newest player is Pho Vietnamese, a café operated by Linh Le and De Dang, who owned the excellent Romance Café on Second Avenue several years ago. Food and service were not what one expects at top sit-down restaurants. They were not at the level of the Vietnamese Café in the Merle Hay Mall food court either. Everything I tried was served on disposable service ware. Egg rolls were taken from storage rather than straight from the fryer. One day they ran out of noodles. (I was told that it takes two hours to prepare and store them correctly.) Rice and noodle dishes missed the extras one expects at sit-down joints but tried to compensate with lettuce salads.
Pho was made from bone stock and rice was exceptional in texture and flavor. Banh mi sandwiches were also available, at bargain prices compared to Subway. An escalator ride down from the skywalk in Capitol Square, Sidebar occupies a bay across the lobby from its sister restaurant Big City Burger & Greens. The latter remains my favorite burger bargain on the skywalk. To complement a recent Big City lunch experience, I walked to Sidebar to try their Bindi gelato, an Italian import. Marvelous in its own rite, it ratcheted the level of ice cream cocktails to new heights. Their salted caramel, vanilla and pistachio flavors particularly impressed. The trappings were as marvelous as they were lacking in the Kaleidoscope. Dinnerware and furniture were mostly blonde and northern European, but more Bauhaus than IKEA. (The bathrooms were as discretely disguised as Scandinavian humor.)
Sidebar offers breakfast sandwiches and pastries. (Creative Director Mike Holman started out as chef at The Café, a trailblazing bakery in Ames, and chef Andrew Havlovic is a Thomas Keller devotee). A laminated croissant stood out. Coffees were from Mother Earth, a Kansas City fair trade company. They were sold in four levels of roast. Gelato and espresso combos were available. Affordable, charcuterie (not freshly sliced) and cheese plates complemented gorgeous gelato cocktails and other pre-Prohibition drinks. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
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