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Food Dude

New café charms Orchestrate’s restaurant lineup


Malo looks to Texas, Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba and Puerto Rico for inspirations.

Malo looks to Texas, Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba and Puerto Rico for inspirations.

A basic tenet of good messaging is rarely heeded in these days of abundance and excess: What’s left out is as significant as what’s included. Malo, a new Hispanic-American-themed restaurant in the historic Des Moines Firehouse, has covered up all traces of fire poles, making it clear that this place is about its food. It also shows remarkable restraint by the Orchestrate/Formaro group whose last big project merged upscale burgers and drinks with a zombie apocalypse to sensational success. Temptations to abuse a firehouse theme are hard to overcome. I have eaten in similar venues that indulged that theme with fire truck bars, fire truck salad bars and frequent fire alarm specials. As David Byrne said, “Too many choices stifle creativity.”

Instead the restaurant maintains a single theme. Its hostess station looks like a recycled taco cart. Its bar is framed by recycled shutters painted in various colors popular in Mexico and Central America. A marvelous mural from a team led by Chicago’s Mark Flores is destined to become a signature of the café. A portrait of Zapata looking more like a fugitive from World Wrestling Entertainment than from Porifiro Diaz’s Federales, is seamlessly layered over a base of graffiti. Bad boys, bad boys. A partially open kitchen is the focus of the large single dining room. Formaro said it’s the best-equipped kitchen of all Orchestrate properties. I counted at least 18 burners, eight fryers, a wood grill, a large flat top, four slow roasters, a giant steamer, a state-of-the-art dough-cutter, a tortilla press and multiple mixers. The talent running that stuff is also impressive. Chef Scott Stroud was the original sous chef at Dos Rios and was promoted to executive chef during that place’s first two months. Sous chef Julio Gamboa is another former Dos Rios head chef.

Their menu sticks pretty much to Texas, Mexico, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and Cuba for inspiration, though South American specials may well pop up, particularly during this summer’s World Cup. Stroud touts a kan-kan pork chop, which he discovered in Puerto Rico. It’s a fried bone-in chop cut from a rib large enough to overflow a standard-sized dinner plate. He plans to serve it with salsa macha, a Vera Cruz sauce that is quite similar to Chinese chili oil. Another Stroud favorite from Puerto Rico is mofongo, a giant pile of hash made with fried plantains and pork skin that is stuffed with garlic shrimp.

Most other items are familiar dishes in Des Moines, but special care is taken in their delivery. Both flour and corn tortillas will be fresh made all day. One burger will be made with chivito (baby goat). Tacos and nachos can be ordered with lobster. Side dishes include hominy and tostones (refried plantains). Chicken fried steak will be made with prime sirloin and will include a fried egg. Chicken and waffles will be slathered in gravy. One salad dressing is made with an agave base.

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Lunches appear to run $9-$15, and dinner entrées range from $9-$35. Tacos cost $3-$5 each, and appetizers are priced between $8-$15. Desserts are mostly priced at $8. 

Side Dishes In case you still feel that Des Moines lacks a cosmopolitan appeal, Namaste was packed during its Easter Sunday buffet. Hindi and Dravidian language music videos played quietly as diners enjoyed dals, tandoori, chaat, curries and pakoras. An evening menu still sells the best South Indian menu in Iowa, with superb dosas, utthapams, idlis and biryanis. The restaurant is operating where it always has, but the grocery store that used to be attached has moved two strip malls west after being forced out by a fire late last year. That store has also expanded considerably with a new line of Indian clothing, more fresh produce and considerably more aisles of spicy delights. CV

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

900 Mulberry St., 244-5000 (taking reservations beginning May 14.)
Bar hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-2 a.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Kitchen closes one hour before the bar.)


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