Gateway Café: The anti-Pizza Ranch2/10/2016
The caucuses drive me nuts. I’m embarrassed that Iowa eschews the secret ballot for a system where everyone goes back to middle school to stand publicly with whomever they perceive to be the cool kids. The entire season is this state’s closest equivalent to a red carpet event where people wait in line for days to catch a glimpse of fleeting celebrities. Mostly, though, I am rankled by the way the national media and candidates perceive us. This year was the worst. Water quality’s deterioration and industrial agriculture’s contribution to it should have been a dominant issue, at least for some candidates running in the middle of the pack. Instead, the only agriculture issue that was consistently mentioned was ethanol. That’s so 1990.
Environmentalist writer Richard Manning wrote a brilliant piece, “The Trouble with Iowa,” in Harper’s. I never heard, or read, a reaction column. The local media was too busy reacting to more frivolous national food stories, like which Iowa restaurants were liked by political pundits. We were again portrayed as the land of corn dogs, deep fried candy bars and Pizza Ranches. All are primary delivery systems for the worst products of industrial corn, wheat, chicken and pork, which are also chief contributors to water pollution.
The food dialogue this year made me nostalgic for Gateway Café. Eight years ago, it was a political hotbed, particularly for Democrats. That year, the need to change agriculture was a hot topic. When President Obama appointed Tom Vilsack his Secretary of Agriculture, fools such as I were hopeful. The two paid lip service to the idea of change for awhile but soon buckled under pressure of industrial agriculture. This year’s political buzz was nothing like it was two elections ago, but the café seemed more popular than ever, for good reasons.
Gateway has found a way to serve high quality meals, all day long, with superior ingredients. Yet compared to other diners in town, they are closer to being the best bargain than the most expensive. Breakfasts of eggs, meat, hashed browns and toast (from their marvelous South Union Bakery) cost $7.95. Only the Cozy Café chain prices a similar combo lower among local diners.
Lunch and dinner cover comfort foods from around the world. Burgers are consistently well seared and served with hand-cut fries, Caesar salad or a chef’s case vegetable. All burgers weighed half a pound and cost $10-$11.50. Pork tenderloins ($10) were equally humongous. That’s so much meat I usually turn to New England lobster rolls ($13), blackened tuna ($13) or falafel ($10).
Ramens are popular here, with four different styles ($9-$12.50) of diligently researched noodle soups. Other soups ($3.50-$5) varied day to day. Gateway’s clam chowder (Fridays and Saturdays) is as good as that soup can be.
The best deals, though, are chicken dinners. No one makes better chicken than Gateway. Its roasted birds are an organic product from the Amish poultry company, Gerber’s. They are brined, marinated in the final stage of flavoring, skewered and placed on the rotisserie. Fried chickens are not organic but they are buttermilk brined for 24 hours and fried in lard with a secret combination of herbs and spices. Chicken dinners of either type cost $7 (four whole wings, a pot pie or one breast) to $10.50 (three pieces) and all include homemade buttermilk biscuits and a choice of two sides. No other place in town offers such a selection of side dishes — cilantro tabouli, caprese tomatoes, potato salad, cole slaw, quinoa salad, roasted beets with cheese and nuts, tortellini, fruit salad, baked beans, creamed corn, mac and cheese, vegetable of the season, potatoes O’Brien or mashed potatoes.
Side Dishes: The first annual Pho King cook off will be held on Saturday, March 5 at the Des Moines Social Club Culinary Loft. Tickets are selling fast through Iowa Asian Alliance www.iowaasianalliance.com/pho-king. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
2002 Woodland Ave., 422-5109
Daily 10:30 a.m. –10 p.m.