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Food Dude

The aroma of searing protein

6/5/2024

Embers filet

The fashion of the day is “the next new thing.” Social media made it so. Everyone with a phone is now a critic and a wannabe influencer. And influencers flock only where the other trendsetters perch. 

Metro Des Moines is home now to six high-end, USDA prime steakhouses, four in the Jordan Creek area. Jesse’s Embers makes no pretense about fashions of the day. Its hat hangs on the rack of tradition, specifically the steakhouse tradition that flourished in step with Iowa’s development as an agricultural wonderland. 

The Iowa steakhouse developed mostly in western Iowa when cattle outnumbered people, and even hogs, within 100 miles of the stockyards of Omaha and Sioux City. They exuded leather, wood and brass testosterone and became de facto country clubs in towns too small for such things. Their smoke signals entreat us to, in Christina Rossetti’s words, “sit down and feast with us, be welcome guest with us.” Traditional steakhouses lit their dark interiors with the simple charms of neighborhood and commonwealth.   

Jesse’s Embers is the area’s exemplary traditional steakhouse. Jesse Rousch opened it in 1963, and his family operated it, and briefly two others, for 44 years. Longtime bartender Marty Scarpino bought it in 2007 with his partner, Deena Edelstein. Marty is one of eight siblings from a restaurant family. His parents owned Scarpino’s with its famous tree house “Crow’s Nest.” That was built for the children but became popular with diners. 

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Scarpino changed little at the Embers. Two small windows were added by Deena when Marty says he was out of town. Marty’s dad, Ken, took photos of Des Moines’ traditional glories for the walls. Marty and Deena expanded the size of the grill and substituted gas fire for charcoal embers. 

Those small changes were acceptable to a stunningly loyal clientele that has included every Iowa governor since Bob Ray and most every local power broker since it opened. Dick Olson and Bill Knapp were regulars. Clint Eastwood stopped in when filming in Winterset. So did Carl Weathers, aka Apollo Creed. Charles Grassley, one of the very few who does not have to wait for a table, once recommended the place to another senator. The latter had to wait even after he dropped Grassley’s name. 

Guests at Embers mingle with other tables, “particularly when they are leaving.” Only two people are admitted after closing time, and we don’t believe they would want it known who they are. They always order the same thing. 

Besides the aroma of searing protein, the charm is the Embers’ compact size — just one cozy room and a bar. The fire marshal limits seating to 84, so sometimes there are more people outside waiting than seated inside. The original five waitresses stuck around for 30 years or more. The current servers are younger but just as thorough in their grace. 

Besides steaks (filets and Jesse’s special prime sirloin are the most popular), cheeseburgers, London broils, made-to-order French dips, and pork ribs are as good as anywhere. Onion rings are handmade, superbly. So are salad dressings. Walleye, yellowfin, salmon and lobster are served, but they’re not what makes this place beloved. 

Marty and Deena embody the esprit of the great mid (20th) century restaurateurs — Babe and Chuck Bisignano, Johnny and Kay Compiano, Joe Vivone, Joe and Red Giudicessi, Alice Nizzi, Aunt Jenny Renda, plus several others. (Restaurateurs should have their own room in the new Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa.) During the COVID-19 shutdown, Marty made pizza, really good pies and gave them away, many to the Des Moines Police.

Tradition dictates that dinners come with courtesy bread baskets, choice of a salad and a choice of a side. Sides include crisp cottage fries and baked potatoes. One never needs to ask for more butter. Desserts come in beverage form and include the all-stars of traditional steakhouse culture — ice cream cocktails like brandy Alexander. 

The Embers would like to open again for lunch, but “no one wants to work lunches anymore.” The restaurant has a parking lot out back and is most popular “November to April.” Don’t even try to make a reservation. ♦

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

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