The first round of 2016 restaurant openings began in synch with the high school basketball tournaments. Twice I tried to eat at Iowa Tap Room in East Village but moved on after finding an hour’s wait. That’s a stunning opening weekend for a place with 7,200 square feet and 120 Iowa craft beers on tap. Jethroni Pepperoni began hiring staff for its anticipated opening later this month in Altoona. The curiously named Taco Hangover debuted last week in a former Saint’s venue in West Des Moines. All three of these places are new productions by big local companies. Iowa Tap Room is a Full Court Press (Hessen Haus, Royal Mile, Fong’s Pizza, Mullets, High Life Lounge, El Bait Shop, Red Monk, The Library) original. Jethroni Pepperoni is from Bruce Gerleman (Splash, Jethro’s), and Taco Hangover is the latest from Riley Drive (Saint’s, Tonic).
I was surprised on a preliminary visit to Taco Hangover, mainly by pricing. I expected to find mostly $5 tacos that are somehow conquering downtown Des Moines. Only two — oxtail and flank steak — reached that level. Most were $3. The hangover part of the name seemed to suggest the “hair of the dog that bit you” cure. Margaritas are the house specialty. The usual sports bar food was replaced with the likes of pig wings, chicharrones and lobster shrimp jalapeno bombs.
Gringo Mexican food left me hungry for something more south of the border-like. Tacos Marianna’s was a regular lunch spot for me when it was located in the heart of Dogtown. Since their move 10 blocks east several years ago, they fell off my beaten path. I should not have let that happen. Their current location qualifies them for “hidden gem” status. The small parking lot looks like it has been bombed. The outside of the building has no lure at all, except for a painted window advertising $1 tacos on Wednesday and Thursday. Inside is a quaint museum of folk art dedicated to San Sebastian del Oeste on the Jalisco side of the Nayarit border.
One-dollar tacos come from another dimension of the space time continuum. Even taco trucks charge more these days. Nobody does them better than Marianna’s either. I have tried tongue, beef cheeks, adobada, two kinds of tripe, carnitas, chorizo, pastor, beef birria and steak. The latter style is the only one I probably won’t try again. Tacos are dressed with generous amounts of sliced radish, onion, cilantro and lime. They are made with two corn tortillas that are freshly grilled. Beans are whole pintos rather than the creamy frijoles most joints sell. Rice is well seasoned but nothing special. Guacamole is unique with Cotija cheese and cucumber included. Masa dishes are freshly made including huaraches, flautas, gorditas and pupusas with a slaw of curtido. Soups are hangover cures.
Beer is also bargain priced. Mexican cane sugar soft drinks and freshly squeezed orange juice are on the menu. Service is always spot on, but since dishes are made from scratch it takes awhile. The menu sensibly fits on three pages. This place is usually crowded at rush hour, so think about it for a late lunch. I have heard people say they are grateful for the unattractive building and scarred parking lot. Otherwise it might be too crowded.
Bottom line – Marianna’s ranks with the very best eastside Mexican cafés, and it’s 13 blocks west of the river.
Side Dishes: Four thousand chefs from 49 states petitioned the U.S. Senate to reject Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts’ DARK bill to prevent the labeling of genetically modified foods. The bill is apt to come up for a vote as early as this week… Café 515, in the C Fresh Market, swept both the People’s Choice and the judges’ awards in the first annual Pho King cook-offs. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
1305 University Ave., 288-1499
Wednesday — Monday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. (on Sundays they might not open until noon