And the Ultimate Place for Steak is…10/24/2012
Nothing starts a good argument like food. So two years ago, to determine a consensus about what central Iowans prefer between two slices of bread, Cityview instigated the Ultimate Sandwich Challenge. We followed that up last year with an Ultimate Pizza Challenge. More than 4,000 votes were cast for readers’ favorite sandwiches in 2010 and that number more than doubled in deciding 2011’s pizza argument. Both competitions were spread over several weeks as we whittled our fields down to a single favorite. In the sandwich challenge, B and B Grocery Meat and Deli’s pork tenderloin won the title in a final over Taste of Italy’s meatball sandwich. Last year Gusto edged Pagliai’s after their pies outlasted 38 other nominees.
This year we asked you to determine Iowa’s ultimate place for steak. So many people responded that we began with the 64 places that received the most nominations. They covered the state: west to east from Archie’s Waeside in Lemars and Hawarden Steakhouse in Hawarden to Kalmes’ in St. Donatus and The Palms Supper Club in Fort Madison; north to south from Minerva’s in Okoboji and Unkie’s in Thor to Appanoose Rapids Brewing in Ottumwa and Bogie’s in Albia. Nominations ranged from prime-only steakhouses like Fleming’s and 801 Steak and Chop to family-friendly chains like Machine Shed and Bonanza. Some places are known almost exclusively for steaks, such as Rube’s and Iowa Beef Steakhouse. Others, such as Splash or Baru66, are better known for something else. Readers touted Italian, French, Japanese and Greek places as well as barbecues, brew pubs and taverns.
During the competition, 14,259 votes were cast, a huge increase from previous challenges. That could be because steakhouses have become a great source of Iowa pride, touchstones to the farms and small towns from which many of Des Moines area families moved. Three-fourths of Iowa counties peaked in population more than 100 years ago, while Des Moines grew continuously. In smaller towns, steakhouses often became surrogate country clubs — the nicest places in entire counties for people to celebrate special occasions of life. In Iowa’s larger towns, they developed a wood-and-leather aura that declared “real men eat here and cut big deals.”
After three weeks, a savory 16 finalists were chosen — Chicago Speakeasy, Trostel’s Greenbriar, Tally’s, Rusty Duck, Nick’s Bar and Grill, TR’s Bar and Grill, John and Nick’s, The Big Steer, Ginos, Iowa Beef Steakhouse, Fleming’s, Tumea and Son’s, Noah’s, Yanni’s, Christopher’s and Texas Roadhouse. The first eight of those places survived the next cut. That means that neither of Des Moines’ all-prime, expense-account steakhouses made the top eight. People seem to be looking for value in this economy.
Tradition dominated the final four with Chicago Speakeasy and its family spin-off John and Nick’s joining Trostel’s Greenbriar and The Big Steer. Finally, Chicago Speakeasy and Trostel’s Greenbriar squared off in the final giving me an excuse to revisit both places.
When Paul Trostel opened The Greenbriar in 1987, the place was on the outskirts of town. Trostel was a rugby player/rodeo cowboy/chef who broke most of the rules about what would fly in Des Moines. When the culinary gunslinger rode into town from Colorado in the early 1970s, Des Moines fine dining was an Italian monopoly. His Colorado Feed and Grain and Rosie’s Cantina demonstrated that first courses could offer more than shrimp cocktails and garlic bread and that the town would support a serious wine cellar. Since then, Greenbriar has become synonymous with fine dining in central Iowa.
Paul Trostel died last year. His son Troy runs the kitchen and a third generation works the line part time. Troy’s culinary education was classic European, so steaks can be ordered with most any sauce from the Escoffier handbook. The cowboy-style “gunpowder steak,” though, is still the most popular. Its seasoning, close to Cajun, is so popular the restaurant sells it (in four-ounce packages for $10). I chose a grilled gunpowder ribeye for old time sake, though a gunpowder elk loin is Troy’s personal favorite. (He also touted his Iowa lamb and Iowa striped bass.) From the seasonal menu, I also tried half a citrus marinated chicken served with a marvelous root vegetable sauce, crisped artichoke hearts and a Manchego risotto. A refresher course in Greeenbriar’s tiramisu reminded me that it’s as good as that dessert gets.
Ron and Mary Jaeger opened Chicago Speakeasy (CS) in 1978. Ron passed away 10 years ago, but Mary is still the CEO and “guiding light.” Three of her children run the daily operations today in a place that has expanded to comfortably seat 150. From day one, CS featured a 50-item bar of scratch salads. Even the bar was made from scratch. It’s still ice cooled, a labor intensive service that keeps salads cooler than modern conveniences do. Two full-time employees make the salads, and additional staff replenishes the salad bar at rush hours. Recipes are closely guarded secrets. Curry colored mostaccioli salad, with a pesto like dressing, is the most popular according to Mary’s daughter Julie (Moore). Veggie cottage cheese, black-eyed pea, crab, carrot-apple, pickled herring, pina colada and Oreo cookie salads all have cult followings.
Prime rib has been the featured entrée since CS opened. Mine was made in a slow cooking Alto-Shaam oven and is one of the best bargains in town. Full prime rib dinners, including the salad bar, begin at just $11 (Mondays before 4 p.m.). Even a giant, 16-ounce cut never costs more than $23. Steaks are cooked on an open flame grill or on a flat top stove by request. At dinner, steaks came with choice of starch, including spaghetti, a loaf of freshly baked bread and the salad bar for $15 – $25. Excellent onion rings were battered, not breaded. All wines were priced $20 – $27.
And the winner is, Chicago Speakeasy. CV
The 16 Ultimate Place for Steak finalists as voted by Cityview readers (no particular order)
Nick’s Bar and Grill
TR’s Bar and Grill
John and Nick’s
The Big Steer
Iowa Beef Steakhouse
Tumea and Son’s