Nick’s finds its niche6/11/2014
Is it possible to move a restaurant without altering its character? Iowa café owners have been mulling that question for decades. In Des Moines, both Full Court Press and Orchestrate found success avoiding duplications, choosing instead to expand with completely new concepts. Orchestrate’s one exception — a second Gateway Market Café in the suburbs — was its only failure. Full Court Press’ only move — Buzzard Billy’s — was forced by flood waters and even then they waited years for the perfect venue. For every successful move (Sam & Gabe’s, A Dong, India Star, South Union, Big Daddy’s, Lemongrass, Battle’s, Marianna’s, etc.), there’s been a similar number of successful places that didn’t work out in new locations (El Rey, El Chisme, Mondo’s, Carlos O’Kelly’s, El Patio, Gino’s, and The Tavern). Angelo’s has been on both sides now of this dilemma.
There are all kinds of reasons why a move succeeds or fails, but some restaurant gurus have a knack for finding the right new place. Jethro’s has a perfect record. Pagliai’s, Palmer’s, Tasty Tacos, Cozy Café and Panchero’s are close to perfect. This is a new season for such risk-takers. Tacopocalypse, City Bakery, Cool Basil, Strudel Haus and Tamales Industry have all announced moves this spring. To get a drop on the state of such affairs, I visited Nick’s, which made a major move last winter.
A self-declared specialist in pork tenderloins and Italian beef sandwiches, Nick’s began as a food truck in an Army Post Road parking lot. Owners Nick Iaria and Joe Madonia gave up fighting City Hall over food truck regulations and eventually moved the business into a former Maid-Rite on S.W. Ninth. That place’s lunch counter and booths were usually packed. It’s parking lot was always full. They kept their menu simple with just three sandwiches — tenderloins, Italian beef and sausage, plus fries, onion rings, cheese curds, cole slaw and fried peppers, with corn dogs and chicken strips for kids. They originally served shrimp po’ boys but took them off the menu after a few days for lack of interest.
Last winter, Nick’s moved into a former The Tavern venue on Army Post Road, with a giant parking lot, a bar, a much larger kitchen and more than triple the seating of the old store. The new place is as much a community center and social club as a sandwich shop. On Friday nights, live music plays in the parking lot and fans show up with antique automobiles. Inside, multiple high def TVs are tuned to sports events.
A sign still touts tenderloins and Italian beef sandwiches as specialties. The former featured thick cuts of meat and a double-dipped batter recipe from Town House restaurant in Wellsburg, one of Iowa’s long-standing tenderloin legends. It won the Iowa Pork Producer’s original best tenderloin contest in 2006 and won a “Best of the Best” contest of previous winners in 2011. Tenderloin super blog Des-Loines rates Town House a nine out of 10. Nick’s served them in three sizes ($3.75 – $7.25) as well as on a stick and grilled.
I thought the Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches had been perfected since my last visit to the old store. Excellent jus, tender beef and superb giardiniera starred. Since these sandwiches are best eaten over a counter, the bar stools accommodate Chicago etiquette. I tried a thin-crust pizza topped with excellent fresh ingredients, a good large burger, fried peppers, fried pickles, hand-breaded onion rings, and homemade Italian sausage. Nachos, wings, chili, cheese fries, and breaded mushrooms have been added to the menu.
Bottom line — Nick’s has found its niche as a top-notch diner, minus breakfast.
Side Dishes: Jethro’s owner Bruce Gerleman said his next restaurant will be called Jethro’s Bacon Bacon BBQ… Mimi’s Café closed their store in Paradise Pointe. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
Nick’s 1106 Army Post Rd., 777-2759 Mon. – Thurs.: 10:30 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. Fri. – Sat.: 10:30 a.m. – 9 p. m., Sun.: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.