Los Laureles keeps getting better3/18/2015
Once in a great while, a new type of restaurant changes the way people think about an entire cuisine. Less often, a new café elevates an entire neighborhood. Los Laureles has done both. It opened two decades ago now in a building constructed after the notorious adult theater 1536 had been closed and razed. Although they moved into a neighborhood already inhabited by Raul’s and Tasty Tacos, Los Laureles brought something new to the city’s table. Their version of Jalisco/Michoacan cuisine introduced Des Moines to multiple salsas, steamed corn tortilla tacos, tortas, huachinango, ceviche, carnitas, pastor and radishes as a garnish. All those things are taken for granted today as dozens of restaurants have opened with menus looking much like Los Laureles’ original.
Through the years, Los Laureles has been inconsistent. There were times when the furniture had deteriorated and booths were uncomfortable. Service was spotty at other times. Recent visits have convinced me that such problems have been resolved and that Los Laureles has become the best of its kind. As for the service issue, this place does two things that some of the most expensive cafés can’t manage: Waiters read back orders to make sure they got everything right, and dinners are served on plates that are partially heated and partially chilled, so that your salad stays cold even when plated with beans, rice and a hot entrée. The café also keeps long hours for a full-service restaurant, staying open till 3 a.m. on weekends.
Carnitas still star on the menu. Invented in Michoacan, this dish is essentially confit of pork shoulder. The meats are braised and then slow-fried in lard and chopped into bite-sized pieces that are both crisp and tender. Los Laureles’ version is richly seasoned with chilies, salt, pepper, garlic and oregano and served with fresh limes and radishes. They can be applied to tacos, burritos and tortas. Their culinary cousin is al pastor, another invention of Central Mexico that most historians believe was developed by Turkish and Lebanese immigrants who missed the shwarmas and gyros of their native land. The meat is cooked on a rotisserie after being layered with onions and pineapple. Then it is sliced, like gyros, from the seared outer layer. This dish is made with pork steaks rather than lamb as in the Middle East. Los Laureles’ version is tender and flavored with pineapple.
Beef is represented with fajitas, carne asada and ribeye steaks. The “plato ranchero” delivered a well-seasoned, expertly seared ribeye with grilled jalapenos, salad, rice and beans for $11. Beans were large pintos in rich, lard gravy. Other dishes came with refried beans. Rice often included traces of tomato, carrot and corn. Chicken’s finest moment was as a mole, with that sauce being dark brown and steaming as it was served.
Huachinango (red snapper) is still the superstar of the seafood section, served fried or Veracruzano (smothered in pico de gallo salsa.) Shrimp cocktails and shrimp dishes in general are well represented. Oysters are served on the half shell, and seafood cocktails include “vuelve a la vida” a mix of oysters, octopus and shrimp rumored to cure hangovers. Breakfast is served whenever the café is open. A full bar specializes in tequila and rum drinks.
Bottom line — Los Laureles revitalized its neighborhood. It inspired the marvelous La Plaza development that stretches two blocks east of the café. The restaurant has survived years of stiff competition from food trucks that encouraged Raul’s to move on. It did so by making itself better.
Side Dishes: La Hacienda moved from Ingersoll to Westown Parkway in the former Carlos O’Kelly’s venue… Pyrex celebrated its 100th anniversary by setting a world record for the largest measuring cup (3,000 cups) and introducing a retro product line. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
1518 E. Grand Ave. 265-2200
Mon. – Thurs. 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Fri. 10 a.m. – 3 a.m.; Sat. 8 a.m. – 3 a.m.; and Sun. 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.