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Stalking bargains in Des Moines


Alba’s burger with short ribs and parsnips bisque.

While checking out readers’ choices for Iowa’s ultimate places for steak, I happily discovered that steak dinners need not be a splurge. Chicago Speakeasy, the winner of the Cityview Ultimate Place for Steak Challenge, provides the best example of this. Its lunch menu offers some slightly smaller steak dinners, which include its famous 50-item salad bar, for about half of what steak dinners cost in the evening. Specials on Friday (ribeye) and Monday (prime rib) make them even better deals. They even work for some early birds at dinner time — the lunch menu is offered until 4 p.m.                

With incomes down and the price of essentials rising, more people are hunting bargains. So I spent a week stalking some of the best. The Sunday dim sum menu at Kwong Tung packs in people each week until 2 p.m. Siu mai, the superstar of Shanghai dumplings, were stuffed with homemade pork sausage. Fun gor and har gow both delivered whole shrimp, noodles and vegetables in their translucent, rice paper wrappers. Gow gee (pan fried dumplings), wu gok (deep fried taro root paste) delighted. Kwong Tung’s tripe makes Mexican tripe seem chewy. Stuffed sweet peppers were full of shrimp and drizzled with a marvelous black bean sauce. Jin dui (deep fried sesame balls filled with sweet red bean paste) made a marvelous dessert course. Three of us shared nine plates of food for about $9 each and had plenty of leftovers.                

Pan-fried chicken is an endangered species. For years WHO legend Jim Zabel touted Christopher’s version of this American classic on the radio and TV. By the new millennium, modern dining habits had forced the restaurant to remove its most famous dish from the menu. Slowly cooking chicken in cast iron skillets simply takes up too much stovetop space and requires too many hours of labor. Fortunately the folks at Christopher’s responded to nostalgic customers’ requests and brought their chicken home to roost — on Tuesdays only, when half a pan-fried chicken dinner costs $15.                

Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the work week at Saints because of its $1 slider specials. One can choose from burgers, French dip, pork tenderloins and crab cakes. All were generously sized, but the pork tenderloins stood out. Normally an order of three costs $8, so Wednesday brings a 62 percent discount.                

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After paying our check at another restaurant recently, my dinner partner exclaimed, “Holy shit, we could have eaten twice as well at Wasabi Chi for less. And we could have eaten there twice during happy hour.” Wasabi Chi, my choice as the best new restaurant in Des Moines a year ago, offers a daily Feng Shui Hour special (between 3 and 5:30 p.m.) when appetizers and sushi rolls are half priced in the bar. A shrimp tempura plate cost just $5. Six dollars bought the best ceviche in town (with octopus, salmon, shrimp and white fish) or seared tuna. These prices are offered seven days a week, too.                

Travelers to Europe have long taken advantage of lunch menus being considerably less expensive than dinner menus in better restaurants. Continental-style cafés in Des Moines don’t usually offer that steep of discounts though. Alba is a delightful exception. Even signature entrees like pumpkin gnocchi or herbed chicken risotto are priced under $10 at lunch. Alba’s also my favorite spot for a burger, superbly seared and served on homemade buns with a side dish for as little as $7. I enjoyed a fantastic parsnips bisque (with a pear compote as my side) on a cheeseburger for $7 last week. You can add a scoop of braised short ribs for just $2. The soup alone costs $8 on the dinner menu.


Side Dishes

Cuatro sold to a group led by Jay Wang of Wasabi Chi and will reopen soon as Kampei Japanese Bistro… Maggie Moo’s ice cream shop in Clocktower Square closed. CV

Alba, 524 E. 6th St., 244-0261
Kwong Tung, 2712 Ingersoll Ave., 244-8813
Saints, 4041 Urbandale Ave., 270-6175 and 265 50th St., West Des Moines, 440-4703
Christopher’s, 2816 Beaver Ave., 274-3694
Wasabi Chi, 5418 Douglas Ave., 528-8246.

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