Theories, dangos and meatballs9/11/2013
Twenty three years ago, civic leaders asked Mario Gandelsonas to visualize future development of the city. That architectural theorist, a devout French Post Structuralist, made drawings of Des Moines inspired by his plane ride over town. Those convinced him that the Des Moines River could be transformed into a Seine-like asset that would bridge, rather than divide, the two banks of the river. His visions were chided by many at the time. Recent visits to two new cafés made it clear to me that those who pushed the Princeton professor’s ideas forward did this town a tremendous service. After decades of never walking over a downtown bridge, I now do so routinely with no other purpose than enjoying the experience.
The Hub on the Riverwalk opened in July on the left bank. Its outdoor seating offers views of the Beaux Arts buildings of the city’s original Civic Center (1889-1912), plus several modern structures that look far more temporary. A staircase to the river bank makes skateboarders and bikers daily fixtures there, like Jun Kaneko’s “Dangos,” phallic ceramic sculptures named after Japanese candy dumplings.
The Hub’s signature dishes are also called dangos. Light and puffy pastries, they resembled French choux more than Japanese dangos or Kaneko’s sculptures. They also tasted more like bacon than candy and more Iowan than French or Japanese. Ordered with coffee in the morning, they were a fresh-baked treat. Even as leftovers in the evening, they made a nice, light dessert. I also enjoyed ham-and-Swiss cheese baguette sandwiches and salads, prepped and catered from South Union Bakery and Gateway Market. The baguettes were an Iowa take on banh mis, made with 30 percent soy and corn flour instead of rice flour. Their crumb was heavier than that of an all-wheat flour baguette.
Beer selection featured local brews, and wine was dispensed from stainless steel barrels, a practice that ensures the wine remains fresh for weeks and even months after the first glass is poured. Those barrels are reusable and thus have an attractively small environmental footprint compared to the 26 bottles, labels and shipping boxes they replace. Ice cream from Indianola’s Outside Scoop was also sold. Some facets of service were spotty. One day all orders were “cash-only, no receipts.” Another day the café was “completely out of food.” Most days there were no condiments, not even mustard or mayonnaise for ham sandwiches.
Over the river and through the East Village renaissance, the folks that opened Capital Pub and Hot Dog, in a restored 1880s house, recently refurbished a pet day care center next door. After a pair of visits to Mad Meatballs there, I can’t decide whether that place is more accurately called a bar with food service or a restaurant with a good bar. It was definitely quirky. There were no televisions but commercial radio played loudly. Its décor included antiques on the walls and ceiling. Tables were set for diners rather than drinkers but the bar dominated the room. Local brews, particularly Madhouse products, were featured. Food service was pretty much limited to garlic bread, salads, sandwiches, pasta and pizza. Breakfast, not brunch, was offered on Saturdays and Sundays. My meatball sandwich was served on a perfect bun, soft and absorbent enough to handle the excellent marinara served in a dipping cup. Roasted peppers were offered as garnish. Homemade meatballs were superb, but only two-and-a-half smallish ones were on my sandwich. Pizza were generously topped, but their crusts were uninteresting.
Side Dishes Proof will host a special tomato dinner on Sept. 19… Baru begins serving at the Art Center next week and in the former Papa Lacona’s in November. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.