Since I began writing this column, the number of barbecues in the metro has changed from one, to none, to more than one can count. The genre exploded in the 1990s with the popularization of modern equipment and the professional BBQ tour, on which Des Moines has produced multiple superstars. This century, barbecue consolidated with three main players — Woody’s, Smokey D’s and Jethro’s — opening multiple stores. Along with Cactus Bob’s, Claxon’s and the inimitable Flying Mango, they have chased a few national chains out of town. A new player in this tough market needs to distinguish itself.
I have been visiting Guru BBQ for several weeks trying to find out how they might succeed on that count. Its “L”-shaped dining room, in the marvelously refurbished Des Moines Brewery Building, provides a stylish, urban space like no other. It offers a dozen seats at a bar, plus large booths and tables for four. I have been there when there were only a handful of customers (weekday dinner) and when there was a long line waiting to be seated (Friday night). The bar prides itself on “handcrafted” cocktails, considerably more metrosexual than what other barbecues pair with smoked meats. Cranberry juice ice cubes featured in a couple, very busy, $9 cocktails. Draft beers were an all-Iowa lineup. Twenty bottled beers were more exotic, though mostly American.
I compared prices for ribs and for smoked meat combination platters with Mullet’s, Woody’s, Jethro’s and Smokey D’s. Guru is hands-down the most expensive option. Does their smokehouse work justify it? The short answer is no, but that does not necessarily mean those other places serve better fare. All have problems with consistency. I tried brisket three times, always asking that it be cut off the fatty end. Two out of three times it was as good as brisket can be. The third time it was dry. Ribs presented a similar confusion. Asking for a half-slab from the long bone end twice, my server got it right once. In older barbecue towns, long bone and short bone ends are usually listed on the menu with the short ends costing more. Why a place would not want to accommodate a long bone order is mystifying. The ribs were quite moist, though.
Pulled pork was reasonably moist on two occasions. “Andouille” sausage was a disaster. It had been sliced into small coins and reheated on both ends, rendering it hard and dry. On another occasion, I asked for a serving of uncut link sausage and was told the sliced and reheated style was the only option. Cornish hens were surprisingly moist after a day-and-a-half marinating. Three house sauces were all quite sweet.
Side dishes were also inconsistent. My chopped salad was brilliant with Brussels sprouts, dried blueberries and cranberries, walnuts, Manchego and a honey vinaigrette that was mercifully not too sweet. Their beans — a combo of pintos, kidneys, blacks and limas in a meaty sauce — were the best I have tried in a long while. The macaroni and cheese was wanting for flavor. The cornbread was average at best, and it cost $3 rather than being complimentary as at Woody’s and Jethro’s.
The most distinguishing thing about this barbecue is its efforts at fusion. Friends call this “the Sam Auen effect,” after the owner of Tacopocalypse, Krunkwich and an anticipated new Chinese café. Tacos ($5) were offered with Korean, chipotle and brunch options. Chocolate bacon chili was a popular Bacon Fest creation. Cincinnati chili is offered, but only in a single variation. An udon soup included beef stock, quail egg, herbs and Cajun spices.
Side Dishes: Ingersoll is the new East Grand for Mexican restaurants. With upscale Candela coming to the former Red China Bistro venue, and a taco truck planning to occupy space at 37th and Ingersoll, there will be eight Mexican options between MLK and 37th Street. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
300 W. MLK Parkway, 777-2500
Sunday – Thursday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Friday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.