Road trip destinations5/31/2023
Road trips are for all seasons but winter. But without a truly special destination, why would we bother? Two places, one less than 40 miles from downtown, the other less than 113, are drawing diners from near and far because they offer exceptionally good versions of two of Iowa’s favorite foods — barbecue and burgers.
Barbecue was late coming to Iowa. It developed out of necessity in the South because ice was scarce, even in winter. Without ice, smoke was the best food preservative. That is why the great barbecue cultures developed around North Carolina and Texas, the former favoring pig meat, the latter beef.
Whatcha Smokin’ BBQ (WS) is a central Texas style barbecue that also smokes a lot of pork. Beef is their sweet spot though. Their servers wear T-shirts that say “Brisket” for a good reason. Briskets are served, Texas style, with a choice of “fatty” or “lean.” That is frequently an option in Texas, rare elsewhere. The briskets served to my table have been spot on perfection every time, ridiculously tender and juicy meat.
Brisket is incorporated into other dishes. Brisket poutine features chunks with melted cheese curds, from the free ranged cows of Picket Fences, plus brisket gravy, and green onions on a bed of french fries. Brisket bacon swiss sandwiches are what they sound like.
Prime rib is offered smoked sometimes, usually on Fridays. Short ribs are served on Saturdays. They have meat on top of the bone; other beef ribs only have meat between the bones. A short rib can weigh a couple pounds. The meat is from brisket, chuck, plate and rib areas.
Other meats include double-smoked sausage (which are frequently the first thing to sell out), pulled pork, pork loin, baby back ribs, turkey breast and specialty sausages from Iowa lockers. WS also serves burgers, breaded pork tenderloins, nachos with various smoked meats, smoked chicken wings, cheesesteaks with various smoked meats, and Texas Taverns, which are a take on Sioux City’s famous loose meat “tavern” but with smoked meats, American cheese and sauteed onions. Other than banana pudding, desserts are not Texan. Pie is made with oatmeal and brownies with peanut butter.
WS is a cultural phenomenon, maybe even a tourist attraction. On one Saturday at 6:30 p.m., we drove through the parking lots and counted 69 license plates from outside Boone County to only 12 locals. Plates came from 12 different Iowa counties, and three were from Nebraska. That is reminiscent of central Texas, where people flock to small towns like Luling, Lockhart, Llano and Taylor for Q. As a Lockhart mayor told me, “Bigger towns have too many encumbrances to great Q — like health codes and safety codes.”
In Fairfield, Iowa’s ridiculously good ciderhouse scene is covered by Fishback & Stephenson. They also provide a kitchen that mainly turns out burgers. Oh my, what burgers. They are sourced from whole cows, including prime ribs and filets, that are pasture-raised nearby from birth to finishing by the Adrian family of Jefferson County. The cattle are finished on a diet of apple mash from the ciderhouse.
I have never tasted a better burger. They are 6.5 ounce patties in various styles. Sides are included, and some are unique. Kale salads are made with Dazzling Blue or Westlander kales from the Maharishi University Organic Regenerative Gardens. The Caesar kale includes anchovy filets, freshly shaved Parmesan and croutons roasted in bacon fat. Cowboy caviar combines black eyed peas and sweet corn with three peppers. Hard cider and clam chowder are acceptable sides.
Salmon burgers are also served. On Wednesday and Thursday, brisket baguettes are available. On Friday and Saturday, reubens made with beef blades are. ♦
Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.