Monday, August 21, 2017

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Food Dude

Conversion succeeds the wrecking ball

8/2/2017

Seafood enchiladas in spinach sauce at Alegria.

Seafood enchiladas in spinach sauce at Alegria.

Old Thresher’s Reunion is the most nostalgic recurring Iowa event. Held each year in Mount Pleasant on Labor Day weekend, it attracts a large number of former Iowans who moved their bones out of state but never got Iowa out of their bones. Old timers reminisce with the miracles of their rural youth, the machines that made life unbelievably easier. Antique machines are revered.

The event is a writer’s dream filled with great quotes around every campfire and church tent. One of my favorites came 25 years ago from a lady who was 98 and had traveled from Colorado in a camper with her fifth husband (“none of whom I divorced”). A much younger relative asked her if it was true that “if you live long enough, you see everything.”

“No,” she replied, “but you sure do see a shitload of things you never dreamed possible.”

Changes to the Des Moines restaurant scene the last 20 years bring her to mind. Through the 1970s, Des Moines was anchored by stalwarts of tradition. Changes were usually generational, with children taking over their parents’ place. After then, kids were not that interested in the family business. Restaurants, like the architecture of post Aquarian times, became ephemeral. In the late 1970s, Rusty Scupper became the first million-dollar restaurant in town. Its candle burned at both ends, and it did not last a decade.

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Today, conversion is replacing the wrecking ball. Cabo San Lucas was a state-of-the-art, seafood-centric Mexican place designed by Stick’s Sara Grant and owned by food impresario Jimmy Lynch. It became a casualty of a lawsuit but still thrived for years as Garcia’s. More recently it has seen new concepts come and go faster, and the hub of West Des Moines entertainment moved from Eighth Street to points farther west. One bistro painted the Stick’s furniture black.

El Fogon is the latest entry in the building. It’s related to the successful Los Charros in Ankeny but offers a different menu. From first impressions, this looks like a good bet to hang around. Service and professionalism were impressive. Fajitas were served on sizzling hot plates, and dishes that should be served cold were on chilled plates. I felt appreciated. The place looked great, too, and chefs in the open kitchen seemed to be having a good time. The dominant feature, though, was the size of the portions. Some orders were delivered on three plates, and all were overflowing. Guacamole and excellent curtido (cole slaw) were surprise inclusions on dinners. Tortillas were freshly made from scratch.

I tried chorizo, beef ribs, carnitas and steak, all on one platter called the cowboy. The ribs were the best part of that. A whole fried red snapper was the most expensive dish I spotted on the huge, hard-to-read menu. It was a bargain at $16. A strange “fitness” menu offered things cooked in coconut oil, the same stuff that health police got removed from movie theater popcorn. Breakfast, 10 items, is served all day. …

Gino’s was a venerable café in a building that was 50 years old when Rusty Scupper was built. Last year it reopened as El Sol Azteca, a curious place strong on folk art and Italian opera when I visited but below average in the kitchen. It lasted only months and resurfaced recently as Tequila Tree. Service was terrible on my visits. I asked for a different salsa and was told there was only one. The same waiter then ate a different salsa in front of me. I was told that only a small fraction of the menu was available. That was true. I ordered a huachinango that was so overcooked the flesh would not let go of the bones.

After weeks, Tequila Tree was gone and replaced by Alegria, “a Nayarit style seafood café direct from Chicago.” Things were much improved. The sweet industrial salsa was replaced by a fresh pico de gallo. The music was Latino pop. A shrimp cocktail delivered large crustaceans, and seafood enchiladas were stuffed with little ones.

Side Dish: Cody Trostel and a giant shark are the subjects of the centerfold story in the new Saltwater Sportsman magazine. Trostel is the former manager of Trostel’s Dish and now competes on the saltwater fishing tour. ♦

EL FOGON

1250 Eighth St., West Des Moines,

635-0133

Monday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Friday – Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.

ALEGRIA

2809 Sixth Ave., 381-3823

Sunday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 9:45 p.m.; Friday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.

 

 

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