Doing one thing well11/4/2015
Too many restaurants try to do too many different things. Food writers call this “Cheese Factory Syndrome,” referring to menus so large they need book binders. Last week, I checked out some new restaurants in town that take the opposite direction, showing confidence that they can succeed by doing just one thing well. They also do this while taking on two of the most popular and long-established food genres in town — subs and burgers.
Firehouse Subs bombarded the metro media market with advertising for months before its first restaurant launched here in October. Is there no end to Des Moines’ appetite for subs? Jimmy Johns leads the metro this decade in new restaurant launchings. Now Jersey Mike’s and Firehouse have entered a war against Subway hegemony that’s starting to resemble the chaos of Syria’s civil war. Anybody could end up winning — or losing.
To win a restaurant war, a new guy has to bring something superior to battle. Firehouse has some innovations in its strategy book. Its TV ads tout respect for firemen and the myth that firefighters are great cooks. TV shows like “Rescue Me” and “Chicago FD” show firemen spending more time cooking masterpieces than watering fires. So, does it follow that a sub shop created by real firemen is better than others?
On basics, the answer is on the tongue of the beholder. Sandwiches are prepared out of sight, unlike Jimmy Johns or Subway. Meats and cheeses are not freshly sliced as at Jersey Mike’s. Superior accessories like mayonnaise, olive oil and mustard are not proudly displayed as at Jimmy John’s. I am not sure any of that matters. This firehouse-themed restaurant grabs kids with plastic firemen helmets. Children seem to love wearing them. That elevates the sub shop beyond “construction worker lunch” to a family dinner place.Firehouse has another catch. I counted 40 different hot sauces on the condiment tray. I loved trying those out on chili. More generic (Wendy’s) than old-style Des Moines chilies (Ted’s, Jim’s, George’s), they used kidney beans, tomatoes and celery chunks in mild broth. Just in time to brine your holiday turkeys, the store is selling used five-gallon pickle jars for $2, with all proceeds going to charities.
Within the obscure borders of the West Des Moines/Waukee matrix, Guttenburgers brings 19th-century nostalgia and 21st-century prices to area burger wars. They also make chicken sandwiches, fried or grilled, but chicken is not why herds wander here. Like Firehouse, walls are red as birch leaves in autumn. Birch tree art covers bathroom walls. Historic photos of the Mississippi River near Guttenburg show pontoon planes, river boats, flatboats and steamboats.
An ice cream bar, from Wisconsin’s 50-year-old Chocolate Shoppe, greets visitors. Burgers were cooked with local ground beef with 15 percent fat. That is lower fat than what produces a great sear and juicy burger, based on my experiences here. Orders for “medium” cooked burgers were rejected, too. That was a problem with the low-fat mix. Tomato slices were fresh and red for this late in the season. Buns were “fresh baked daily” and tasted like it.
Fries, slaw and macaroni & cheese (all options with sandwiches) were above average. The mac & cheese was served in a generous kettle with extra cheddar melted on top. Tableside condiments were unique here, too. House barbecue sauce was freshly made featuring apples. Baron’s banana ketchup tasted like really good tomato ketchup, though there were no tomatoes in the recipe. Beers were mostly craft style — Exile, Breckenridge, Sierra Nevada, Cider Boys.
Side Dishes: The World Health Organization announced that processed meats had joined GMO plants and GMO-fed animals as dangerous carcinogens. Some numbers say that includes 90 percent of all foods raised in the North America. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
3710 Merle Hay Road, 276-5822
Daily 10:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.
9250 University Ave., West Des Moines
518-3419 • Daily 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.