Mexican conquest of America6/29/2016
Mexican is the new Italian. Just as Italian chefs dominated the local dining scene after World War II, Mexican chefs are running the kitchens of many restaurants today. Not just Mexican restaurants, either. Many of the city’s best fine dining spots are dependent on Latino line cooks. This is the case all over America, and recently it’s being considered a pending crisis in trade magazines and major newspapers. Last year, Mexican immigration to the U.S. hit a net negative for the first time in decades. That means that more Mexicans are moving south of the wall-free border than are coming north. At the same time, new restaurants are opening at the fastest pace in a decade. Latinos are considered the prime demographic for kitchen recruiters, and the supply is not keeping up with the demand.
In Des Moines, Mexican restaurants are opening faster than any other type. Even the home of legendary Italian favorite Gino’s now hangs a Mexican restaurant banner. In Clive, the popular, long
-running Vietnamese café Saigon has been marvelously converted into Nacho Tequila’s with polished wooden beam booths, handsome furniture in both high top and low top varieties, colorful food art, and a lime green and sunset red color scheme. A stylish looking bar includes two TVs, which silently played sports on my visits. The place looks more like the kind of casual café popular in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa or in coastal resort towns than it looks like most other local Mexican restaurants.
The menu does not look much different from other suburban Mexican ones — eight pages of breakfast, lunch, dinner and happy hour specials from all regions of Mexico. The place accommodates reasonable off-the-menu requests, too. The difference is in the kitchen where recipes that often taste the same in a dozen different local cafés are personalized and expertly executed. Owner Antonio Palacios simultaneously opened Nacho Tequila’s and Marshalltown’s Rancho Adelinas last winter. Before that he was manager of Los Laureles (the favorite Latino café of many locals) plus places in Chicago and Michigan. He’s been collecting recipes everywhere he’s worked.
Three salsas served with complementary chips reminded me of Los Laureles, especially an avocado-chilies salsa. Hot salsas on entrées were deeply flavored and generous in application. The greens that are offered with three different pork dishes (chops, stew and carnitas) complemented the unusual tenderness of the pork. Colorado (red), mole and chile de arbol sauces did similar things for beef and chicken.
Service has been excellent on my visits. Huge portions are served in rimmed dinnerware that has a 15-inch diameter. It looks like Fiesta ware on steroids. Fajitas were served in sizzling skillets. Beans were consistently creamy and fresh, tortillas were hot and wrapped in foil. Even rice is better than average with peas mixed in. One blackboard special impressed the most. It included two perfectly grilled pieces of chicken thigh (other chicken dishes are made with breasts) that had been split and tenderized, several large shrimp that had not been over cooked, a salad of chopped tomatoes, mesclun, avocado and radish (other dishes come with shredded iceberg and sliced tomato salads), scallops, imitation crab meat, cheese, beans and rice.
Drinks were stylishly served in heavy Mexican stemware. Happy hour (3:30-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday) brings 16-ounce Margaritas and pina coladas, or other mixed drinks for $4. Bargains do not end with happy hour either. Lunch combos cost mostly $8. Dinner specials are in the $10-13 range, and all are generous. Breakfast plates cost less than $5 and are served at all hours.
Bottom line — this is an excellent new café in all ways.
Side Dishes: Lurra Cocina closed its tapas café just months after opening… Chef Steve Vasquez is moving from the charcuterie bar at Hy-Vee on Mills Civic Parkway to the corporate development kitchen for the same company. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
1945 N.W. 86th St., Clive, 276-6487
Sunday-Thursday 10:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. – midnight