Family-style Mexican in Valley Junction3/25/2015
One definition asserts that romance is whatever transports one to another time or place. That helps explain why people enjoy restaurants set in offbeat venues that have been repurposed. Diners seek to escape their mundane circumstances as much as readers of Victorian romances do. Iowa offers many opportunities for this kind of dining. Elkader Jail B&B and Ladora Bank Bistro give one what their names suggest. Hessen Haus has transformed a 19th century railroad building into a German beer house. Cafe di Scala brings Italian cuisine to a Victorian mansion. The Cub Club hosts power breakfasts over the green fields of the mind. East Village and the Sculpture Park areas are rife with similar metamorphoses.
Our newest romantic player is Tres Amigos. Like the long popular El Patio, it turns an historic residential house into a Mexican family restaurant. Its venue is as comforting as a sombrero on a sunny day. Since it last housed a family, the store has served as an art gallery, a retailer of adorable things and an upscale bakery. Six different, brightly painted rooms lend very different ambiances. Some are carpeted, some have original wooden floors. One has lamp shades made out of inverted colanders. Seating includes high-top tables as well as low, plus a small bar. Different rooms provided different volume levels of Mexican music. One room also serves as a performance venue on Friday’s karaoke nights and soon as a breakfast place during European soccer games. A large front porch will surely become prime seating for Cinco de Mayo and Farmers Market this year.
The illusion of dining in a private home continues with friendly mom-and-pop owners and young, enthusiastic servers. Our orders were taken with unnecessary questions, some of which continued for quite awhile. Four of us were served one at a time. Several plates were incomplete and some side dishes did not appear until most of our entrees were consumed. Water glasses were not automatically filled but required Q&A sessions. This might annoy some folks, but a full bar with many margarita specials can make it tolerable, if not charming.
While the encyclopedic menu looked like many others in town, executions were often rather different than what one finds in Michoacan — Jalisco-style cafes here. For instance, pollo con crema was made with cheese sauce. Refried beans lacked lardy flavor. Steaks are larger and less seasoned than what is typical. Carnitas were made with chicken breasts and with beef instead of pork shoulder and were less of a confit than a stir-fry dish. Chiles rellenos were neither chilies nor rellenos — instead pieces of Bell pepper were served with a fried egg. Red and green sauces were milder than usual. Barely seasoned carne asada was served on a sizzling platter with caramelized onions. Our menu lacked desserts. Menudo is served every day, not just on weekends. There were no Mexican soft drinks. A larger-than-usual vegetarian menu, a burger menu and even hot wings were all available.
Bottom line — this place has its charms and has already found a niche audience, but not with fans of traditional tacquerias.
The city lost a giant last week with the passing of Joe Giudecessi, founder of Red’s and Christopher’s. May bands of angels sing you to your rest sweet prince… Seattle Magazine and The Seattle Times both recently ran stories about the high number of restaurants that are closing before the city leads the nation in adopting a $15 minimum wage this April. The Times claimed the linkage was a conservative conspiracy, but the magazine cited “math problems” — mainly that impending wage hikes will increase labor’s percentage of average overhead from 42 percent to 47 percent, in an industry with a 4 percent profit margin… Embassy Club West will host the Iowa Restaurant Association’s Culinary Affair on April 12. Tickets for the seven-course wine dinner range from $99 up and sell out annually. https://www.dineiowa.org/secure/shop/product/culinary-affair/ CV
304 Fifth St., West Des Moines, 274-0904
Mon. – Thurs. 11 – 9 p.m., Fri. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.