Keeping it simple5/4/2022
One baffling question facing the contemporary restaurant world: Who first thought that endless menus were a good idea? The Cheesecake Factory leads America with a 23-page menu that includes 85 different chicken dishes and just short of 6,000 words. According to Business Insider, this works because the menu size generates conversation and curiosity. In the current season of short staffs, however, lengthy menus stress execution — the more dishes you serve, the more likely you are to mess one up.
Many places have been shortening their menus since COVID-19 changed the modern restaurant. A few places really excel at this now. One is Lachelle’s Fine Foods. They offer five smash burgers, four sandwiches, three hot dogs and six side dishes. The place looks like a modern take on an old-fashioned diner. Six to 10 cooks operate the grill and kitchen. Customers order at the cash register and wait for their meal to be served. It’s a brilliantly simple operation, and it generates lots of love. It is busy even at odd hours. Many order pick-ups, and many others linger over cocktails, beers or real sugar pop.
The food is fabulous. Burgers include house specialties that include perfectly seared patties, one or two, with additions like hot giardiniera, Duke’s mayo, arugula, bacon and cheese; or grilled onions, romaine, pepper jelly, mayo, mustard and American cheese; or simpler things. Buns are sesame or potato rolls. Sandwiches include ham and cheese, plus roast beef, chicken or vegetarian Phillies. One dog is smothered in french fries. All are made with Berkwood sausages, a heritage hog known for its marbling and red color.
Sides include tots, hush puppies, salads, chili, chili mac and wonderful fresh cut fries. All prices are relative bargains — burgers are $8-10, sandwiches the same, dogs a couple bucks less. Cocktails are $7 for middle shelf pours and beers range from $3.50 to $5. Ingersoll is a bit of a mess right now, but there is a parking lot south of the store.
Chicken Heat keeps an even simpler menu — wings, chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders with seven seasonings and nine side dishes. The seasonings range from Nashville hot, with five levels of heat, to lemon pepper and garlic Parmesan. The chicken is sensational. There is a sit-down room and a carry-out room. Side dishes include good collard greens, potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans, mac and cheese, onion rings, dirty rice and fries. This is one of the very few existing Black-owned restaurants in town.
Nearby Chicken Heat is The Big Easy, a New Orleans-style place with a menu that fits on one side of a standard piece of paper. Crunchy breaded catfish is the specialty here. You can also order it grilled or blackened. Filets or strips can be ordered as well as catfish Po boys. I once ordered a crawfish etouffee dinner and was happily surprised to find a filet of catfish included. That crawfish is divinely decadent in flavors.
Fried alligator, fried pickles, Cajun spiced coleslaw, sweet potato fries and fried okra keep the Louisiana faith. Red beans and rice with Andouille sausage were served whole, not mashed like Popeye’s popular version. Jambalaya was made in a cream sauce with sausage, chicken and shrimp. Large pork tenderloins were a toast to Des Moines. Seafood gumbo with sausage and chicken with waffles returned to the Southern theme. Desserts included brownies with ice cream and freshly made pecan pie.
There is a full bar and a pool table, which also seems more like Louisiana than Iowa. ♦
Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.