County Line Café is a classic8/26/2015
An out-of-town journalist recently asked me what turned Des Moines into a significant food town. I said something I had not previously given any thought to: The best chefs and restaurateurs in Des Moines are total food enthusiasts. They support little ethnic joints that are off beaten paths, old-fashioned bar and grills, and fair food. They also travel extensively to non-tourist destinations, usually for the purpose of expanding their food acumen. This is an unusual thing, at least to the degree it happens in Des Moines. Most chefs support each other, realizing that a rising tide raises all ships. That is even more unusual.
One such civic food chauvinist is George Formaro, who owns Centro, Django, Malo, Zombie Burger, South Union and Gateway Market Café. He and his wife Sheila recently introduced me to a classic little Des Moines place that has been feeding folks for some 50 years without my ever hearing about it. County Line Café is not really looking for attention. It sits behind a gravel parking lot on a road less traveled. It has no sign, no website nor any social media platform. It’s not really urban. The place supports several horseshoe pitching courts. All indoor tables are suited for card playing — round tables that seat four to seven. Score pads often sit on the tables. Patriotism is welcomed with a framed American flag, folded into a ceremonial triangle, JFK photos and “Never Forget” signs.
Behind the bar hangs a framed story about County Line. It has aged to an orange color and is titled “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” from The Des Moines Register or maybe the Tribune. The song in the headline, and the TV show that made it famous, both were released before the Tribune closed in 1982. County Line has existed in a media black hole since then. Two Yelp/Google reviews complained that they don’t take credit cards or cater to families. This is an old-school, neighborhood bar. Anyone who takes children there does not get it. It’s also no place to go for fancy drinks. Bud, Bud Lite, Miller Lite and Fat Tire comprise the tap beer list. Those are dispensed in 10-ounce glasses and plastic mini-pitchers. Cans, bottles and pitchers are served without glasses unless requested.
Among its charms is an all-plastic Tiki shrine. NASCAR is big here, too, with Dale Earnhardt seemingly the chosen son. A pool table is lit by a plastic Budweiser sign in the shape of a stock car. Two TVs play at low volume or silently. “Cops” reruns were on during two of my visits.
Usually a single person works both bar and kitchen, an astonishing feat for a place that can get rather busy at dinner hour. They do this with streamlined efficiency. There are six things on the menu, all excellent — hamburgers ($4), cheeseburgers ($4.25), breaded pork tenderloins ($5.50), massive Italian sausage sandwiches ($6.75), grinders ($5.25) and pizza ($12.50). All pizza cost the same, no matter how many toppings one requests. It’s also refreshing to see that one does not need to pay for cheese and other ingredients if one just wants a simple hamburger. All are served with bags of chips. That means that a deep fat fryer is devoted exclusively to tenderloins, which are hand-breaded and thicker than any others I have found. Sandwiches I have ordered came on toasted and buttered buns. Grinders were mildly seasoned but came with a choice of hot or mild peppers.
Side Dishes: Drake law professor Ellen Yee will discuss that school’s food recovery program Aug. 27 at Wallace House… Scott Stroud of Jethro’s Jambalaya won the blue ribbon in the Soy Council’s tofu-based salad dressing contest at the state fair. CV
COUNTY LINE CAFÉ
10894 County Line Road, 287-7464
Mon. – Fri. 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.,
Sat. – Sun. 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.