Thursday, December 1, 2022

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Food Dude

Thanks given, 2022


Pupusas at La Cuscatleca South

It’s hard as ever to open a new restaurant these days with labor shortages, high-interest loans, and customers stressed by inflation. Yet people keep doing it, and doing it well. In this month of thanksgivings, we salute daring new places that made the local food scene much better. 

There is another reason we took this direction. Three days before Bar Nico even opened last month, someone with no profile, nor photo and with the unlikely name of AVA Smith posted this about the café on Google. “Absolutely awful, terrible service, overpriced Mexican, boring!” If AVA Smith exists, it was only possible for him/her to have sampled the bar’s service, food and drinks completely without expense, out of the generosity of the owners. Haters got to hate. 

Since all other reviews were positive, I ventured down to this new café in East Village. I found a top-notch cafe, beautifully remodeled, featuring top-shelf mezcals, tequilas and whiskeys with very creative recipes for cocktails. For instance: an Oaxacan Fashioned mixed Vida mezcal reposado with Ancho Reyes Chile liqueur, chocolate bitters and agave nectar; Sangre de Vida combined Vida mezcal with brandy, Aperol, ginger lemon liqueur and brown sugar; Borderlands mixed vodka with fig syrup, Cardamaro Amaro, sherry and lemon. Those drinks were $10-$14 and were fabulous examples of our city’s new bar culture. 

Bar Nico

  • 428 E. Locust St., 515-243-0611
  • Tuesday – Sunday, late afternoon till midnight most nights 

La Cuscatleca South

  • 2580 Fleur Drive, Suite 101 (downstairs), 515-264-4072
  • Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.

Beans & Beignets

  • 105 S. Chestnut Ave., Earlham, 515-758-3806
  • Tuesday – Thursday, 6 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Friday – Saturday, 6 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Foods were designed to pair with drinks. Tacos of short ribs, pork shoulder and sweet potatoes starred. So did lobster toast with citrus beurre blanc, sweet corn rémoulade and jicama. Lobster and scallop ceviche with coconut cream, pastor (rotisserie grilled) pork shoulder with plum-guajillo salsa and stuffed crepes with salmon roe were both upgrades from typical Mexican cuisines in Des Moines. Those dishes were $10-$18. A fabulous Basque cheesecake, with fruit, vanilla whipped cream and chocolate mole crisps, sent us home smiling. 

La Cuscatleca South is now open in a marvelous space the used to be the AIB cafeteria. Like their parent store on the eastside, they are all-in for Honduran/Salvadoran cuisine. (Cuscatleca means Honduran or Salvadoran but only applies to inanimate things like food or art, not people.) 

Beignets at Beans & Beignets

That means fabulous pupusas (stuffed corn meal pancakes served with cabbage slaw and curtido salsa). I tried some stuffed with: chicharron, loroco (a nutty tasting flower), cheese and spinach, beans and squash. Entrees include plantains prepared three different ways. They also were included on my plates of beef stew and chicken con crema. Full breakfasts are also served. Casamientos, a richer form of frijoles, and mashed yucca (casava root) ranked with best in town. 

The café is closed on Sundays to offer its space for rentals. It’s a very happy spot with 1950s diner décor indoors and a huge wrap-around patio with great views of downtown. 

There is a spot in downtown Earlham that two of Des Moines’ best restaurateurs tried to convert into small town cafes. Both gave up, but COVID had a lot to do with their misses. Now, it’s found new life as a bakery and coffee house that compares well to the best of Des Moines, Iowa City or Ames. 

Carnitas tacos on blue corn tortillas at Bar Nico

Beans & Beignets is the epitome of what is called “a hidden gem.” Pastries are ridiculously pleasant surprises, with four kinds of beignets that can transport one to New Orleans. I tried them all and prefer the lemon. The coffee beans that shares naming rights with them are roasted in Winterset by Pammel Park. 

Soups are Trellis-level good. Sandwiches and salads are just fine. Desserts, especially pies, are worth the drive from Des Moines. An ice cream bar and dessert menu open at 11 a.m. ♦

Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.

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