Dos Rios has become a bargain2/18/2015
In Iowa, chili cook-offs have become a rite of winter. Country clubs, churches, taverns and hospitals all hold them. Last week, one transported me to another time and place. The Altoona Fire Department hosted such an event to raise money for state-of-the-art medical rescue equipment. The firehouse was filled with American flags, lockers and fire trucks, staffed by uniformed Boy Scouts and attended by a large crowd. Wheel chairs and oxygen tanks outnumbered Asians and African Americans by double figures. Sugar Shack edged out Christ the King church for the best chili award. Norman Rockwell’s America is not completely dead and gone.
The chilies had less diversity than the audience. There was one white chili with chicken but other than that, they came in two varieties — barbecue with beans and loose meat with beans. Most were in tomato stocks. Bell peppers were more prevalent than chile peppers. That left me wondering how, at least in pockets of Iowa, chili ended up having so little to do with chilies. New Mexico’s state motto is “red or green?” That refers to chilies that are made with chilies. Is Iowa’s take on that, “barbecue or loose meat?”
Across the metro that same evening, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society held another chili cook-off. Mike Holman won that event, adding to his victory in the Iowa regional Culinary Fight Night. Holman is executive chef at Dos Rios, a place I figured would entertain my chile quest.
When Dos Rios opened in 2007, I wondered if it would become a landmark restaurant or another “ahead of its time” effort at taking Mexican cuisine upscale in Iowa. Happily, they have succeeded where La Fonda and Cabo San Lucas failed. The biggest change from eight years ago is in prices. In 2007, they crossed the $30 entrée barrier, a threshold The Washington Post calls too steep for most East Coast diners. Now only two entrees cross the $20 threshold. Those are solidly worth their prices, too. Seared scallops ($20) are among the best in town, with bacon sautéed kale, poblano chile whipped potatoes and a tomato emulsion. Their New York strip ($21) is made with chimichurri sauce (that’s the Argentine word for de Burgo), served with the same potatoes, tomato escabeche, fried onions and red chile butter. Pork belly ($17) is rather famous here served with sweet corn salsa, mashed sweet potatoes and a dark mole. The restaurant holds some delightful aromas, mainly from a free-range chicken rotisserie and freshly squeezed limes. Some of the latter come with the tableside guacamole ($5-10), made with roasted poblano chilies in mocajetes — lava mortars that other Mexican cafés use only as decor.
Different masas were used for handmade tortillas, empanadas, tamales, gorditas and enchiladas. Salsas are scratch-made daily. The yellow habanero salsa is my favorite hot sauce in town. Lunch featured a two-taco special complemented with a citrus vinaigrette salad or soup for $10. The best bargains are found on the Happy Hour (4-7 p.m.) menu. Huge appetizers are served for $5, basically half-price. These include several of my favorite dishes on the entire menu. Crisply fried, buttermilk battered calamari was served with chile garlic vinaigrette and chipotle aioli. Empanadas were stuffed with two Mexican cheeses, roasted chilies, pureed black beans and red sauce. Shrimp tostadas were generously made with avocado, slaw, whipped cream and cheese. Gorditas were stuffed with slow roasted pork shoulder, cheese, Napa cabbage and pico de gallo. Crispy pork belly was served with creamy chipotle sauce.
Side Dishes: Ava Chin, author of “Eating Wildly,” will speak about foraging the perfect meal, 7 p.m., on April 6 in Iowa State’s Memorial Union… Culinary Fight Night returns to Des Moines in late April when Mike Holman faces winners from Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
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