Butler Café defies history11/30/2016
Don’t get into the grocery store business. Margins are so small that only the supersized can survive. That has been good advice for 50 years now. It also helps explain why small towns have either been losing population or ceasing to exist in Iowa. People rue the loss of small-town stores, but they also drive to the nearest Wal-Mart. Lose your grocer, your high school and your café, and your town is marked for doom.
Brian and Mary Lohse defied the inevitability of modern history after winning a lottery jackpot. They invested in their hometown of Bondurant by endowing a supermarket and café that now save locals a lot of gas money. Astoundingly, their Brick Street Market and the Butler Café are not just token local stores, they are paragons of Iowa food traditions that are now enticing inner city Des Moines folks like me to reverse the historical process and drive 40 miles to shop in a small town. (The difference between a small town and a suburb is the existence of cornfields.)
Brick Street Market is anchored by one of the best butcher shops in Iowa. I frequently find steaks there that are better marbled than others costing three times as much in Des Moines. The market is filled with endangered traditions. Their house label pickling products include both hot and mild dilly beans, corn relish, brown sugar and hot pepper krauts, sweet and sour cabbage, hot asparagus, beets and garlic kraut. These are all blue ribbon class products. Jams and jellies, both house-labeled and from Clear Creek Orchard of Collins are, too. None include the dreaded high fructose corn syrup that has ruined most supermarket jellies. Black and tart cherry versions have enticed me to triple my previous consumption of toast.
Brick Street’s bakery reminds me of Dahl’s 50 years ago. Buns come in onion wheat and white versions, the latter are made with egg yolks, lending them a lovely shade of yellow. All bakery products are made with familiar ingredients, not chemical mysteries. I have brought Brick Street pecan cinnamon rolls, banana nut muffins, apple fritters and pumpkin streusel to breakfast meetings that produced raving demands for the source. The store also stocks excellent products I cannot find in Des Moines such as Hendrickson’s salad dressings from east Missouri, plus Stubborn and Kaleb cane sugar sodas from Florida.
The best thing about Brick Street Market is its Butler Café, named for a 1940s-era loose meat sandwich joint in Bondurant. The café utilizes the butcher shop and bakery with extraordinary results. Its signature loose meat sandwich is the best I have ever found. Your choice of buns will be toasted and buttered, dressed with sweet pickles, tomato, lettuce and red onions and filled with so much juicy beef that one sandwich always lends me two meals. Burgers have been seared to perfection in my experience. All sandwiches are served with a side — humongous house fries, curly fries, skinny sweet potato fries, mashed potatoes with gravy, potato salad, coleslaw or baked beans. Sometimes my waitress allows me to substitute any side from the deli, including desserts like cobbler.
Fried chicken is hand breaded, fried and pressure-cooked for tender-to-the-bone meat and crispy skin. It’s so good I have yet to try the fried fish. The Butler’s breaded pork tenderloin has been awarded best in metro status by the Iowa Pork Producers. The café’s 1919 (the year Prohibition began) keg root beer is also as good as any I have ever found, made with real vanilla and real cane sugar. In a rare nod to modern times, the café has a drive-by window.
Okoboji Grill stores in Ankeny, Johnston and Des Moines closed… Wellman’s Pub, Peggy’s Tavern, Wellman’s Pub & Rooftop, Shotgun Betty’s, Magnolia, and all 1908 Draught Houses donated a day’s profits to families of slain police officers. ♦