Local Bites redefines food courts5/18/2016
Food courts changed the world’s feeding habits, but not in good way. From their 1971 origin at Plymouth Meeting Mall in Pennsylvania, they brought Dairy Queen, McDonalds, Auntie Anne’s, Cinnabon, Sbarro’s, Subway, Orange Julius and many other fast food chains to the far-flung world.
Food courts even replaced cafeterias in most colleges and universities, retarding the education of the palates of younger generations. In one famous episode of “The Office,” Michael Scott goes to New York City where he proclaims Sbarro’s as the city’s greatest pizzeria. (The deplorable quality of that chain’s food has been credited for both of its bankruptcies.)
Local Bites, the newly reopened food court in the Greater Des Moines Partnership Building, reverses all negative stereotypes about food courts. There are seven vendors, and not one of them is a chain — all are local independents. After trying all seven during three visits, I would try them all again. A couple I will revisit soon.
The level of excellence begins with L’Italiano where chefs wearing toques in a food court is not ironic. Stunningly, this café, from the braintrust of the excellent Open Sesame, offers fresh handmade pasta that ranks with any in town. Its tagliatelle was marvelously sauced with a Bolognese made with both beef and pork. Its pappardelle was served in a pink sauce with guanciale (pork jowls) and smoked Scarmorza, a cow’s milk cheese similar to mozzarella and associated with southern Italy. I fully intend to try its penne in arugula pesto, its gemelli with shrimp and vodka, and its gnocchi in cream sauce with spring peas and ham. I was also astonished to find a Romaine and Gorgozola salad with Jidori chicken — the Kobe beef of Japanese chicken. Five pizza pies, five panini and two desserts keep faith with Italian style, not Italian-American.
Local Yocals farmhouse specializes in Iowa-raised products, including grass-fed beef. Burgers, including a perfectly seared lamb burger, starred with fresh baked buns that were buttered and toasted. Fries were fresh cut. Iowa sweet corn chowder tasted like July. Breakfast is also served here.
Burger Shop also delivered burgers with buttered and toasted buns. I was more impressed with its chicken fried steak, which was so tender I could cut it with a plastic fork. It was served with huge helpings of corn, mashed potatoes, superb coleslaw and a drink. At $7.50, that was definitely the most bang for the buck in the food court.
Viva Mexico somehow manages to offer a full family casual Mexican menu. Pollo a la crema ranked with the best in town. Beans were smooth. The place could use some condiment options, though. That goes double for Moar Tacos, a Korean-style tacqueria that presented the most environmentally friendly boxware in the food court but un- Korean spiciness. My kim chi tasted more like coleslaw and even lacked any red trace of the chilies that usually provide its fire. Tortillas tasted like fresh made. I will return for their waffles in azuki bean paste with fresh whipped coconut milk.
Teriyaki Boys, a concept by Wasabi mastermind Jay Wang, offered the shortest, simplest menu — shrimp, beef, chicken and vegetable teriyaki in eight combos with rice and vegetables. Beef stood out in a complementary glaze. Jimmy’s Gyros, which also operates in the above-average food court at Merle Hay Mall, served gyros, chicken gyros, Greek chicken, Greek salad and Greek fries.
The rebuilt food court featured 20-foot trees and harvest tables plus two- and four-seaters to serve 280. It was busiest toward the end of the work week. Sadly, the old escalators were replaced with a stairway. The elevators are still operating.
Side Dishes: Fresh Market will close this Thursday, just seven months after its opening… Sam & Gabe’s announced it will open a second store on East Lyon Street with seating for 270. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
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