Saturday, May 25, 2024

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Lunch With...

Mike Wedeking at Wasabi Chi


Mike Wedeking is Mister Barbecue. After 20 years at Flying Mango, purveyor of the best vibes of any restaurant in Des Moines, he is trying to retire. We asked him to lunch, and he selected Wasabi Chi on Douglas. This is the BBQ guy’s escape — everyone in the restaurant knows him. “Oh, are you here to see Mike? This way.”

Wedeking only goes to places with easy parking. 

“I loved Alba, but the city planners ruined East Village for me. They did the same thing to Ingersoll. Zora is a $5 million restaurant that people can’t access because of traffic and parking chaos.”

I was early, but Wedeking had preordered raw tuna tacos and a tuna princess roll. 

“I am not sure it’s still on the menu, but they always make one for me, whether I order it or not.”  

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We added some Hamachi and white tuna nigiri and talked about the last quarter-century in Des Moines dining. 

“We had our 20th anniversary at Mango a couple weeks ago. I catered barbecue and worked the farmers markets for five years before that. So, I’ve been serving Q for a quarter-century here. It’s time for me to get out. I am 67, and I don’t want to die in the building. We are on the market. I think I have it priced to sell; it makes a good profit. I want to sell it to someone who will keep and respect my staff. That last part has eliminated one possibility.” 

What was the state of BBQ when Mango opened? 

“Big Daddy’s was here and Battle’s. That was it. Big Daddy’s is gone but still sells sauce. George (Battle) moved to Ames, became Battlecry, but closed last year.” 

Mango is the survivor from the old days before gas-run equipment and television persuasion popularized simulated BBQ. Wedeking built his all-wood smoker for mobility. He tows it long distances to cater special events, like weddings.  

“I am licensed to officiate weddings. I can perform a marriage if I am retained to cater the reception. I tow my smoker and a couple grills, mostly to Kentucky. I have catered weddings at Woodford Reserve distillery (Kentucky Derby sponsor). I am a serious advocate for bourbon. That has led to many happy connections.”  

Wedeking has some bourbons he does not plan to open. 

“I bought a case of Pappy Van Winkle 20 years ago for $106 a bottle at Frugal MacDougal (legendary liquor store in Nashville and Columbia). I have some Angel’s Envy. I was given a bottle of Old Blowhard (26 year aged, $1,200-$1,300 online) that I have never opened. I just don’t consume anything that expensive; I am a barbecue guy.”

Dixie beer (now called Faubourg to appease the “woke” crowd) has been a connection. 

“I know them and admire their products. I have been lobbying to bring them to Iowa for a long time. Their Blackened Voodoo dark lager is a fabulous beer.”

How did the name Flying Mango come about? 

“I was a licensed pilot since I was 16. Mango is my favorite fruit. I catered a lot of air shows, particularly in Ankeny. My great friend Paul Trostel let me use his kitchen at Chip’s. Pork Expo, or maybe it was Iowa Ag Expo, was held at the Ankeny Airport one year. That is still the largest catering job I ever had.”

Mike rode motorcycles with a gang of Trostel buddies. 

“Yeah, Ron Brown and Dave Ward were the others. I really miss Paul; I still go to Greenbriar and think about him.” 

How did the COVID pandemic change things? 

“We survived because barbecue travels well. We did so much take-out that I have never been able to reopen my east room for dining. The take-out traffic consumes the whole room, still.”

TV has elevated the reputation of Mango, ironically. 

“That’s for sure. I don’t watch television, at all. I don’t go to movies either. I have not been to a fast-food restaurant since my junior year in high school. So when DDD (Diners, Drive-ins and Dives) called, I didn’t have a clue who they were. They have done three shows now at Mango, and we get traffic from all 50 states because of those shows. There is even a DDD app for phones that alerts drivers when they are within 20 miles of a DDD restaurant. Most everyone who comes because of that, returns. I am friends with three members of the film crew. Guy (Fieri) and I get along well. Ever since I told him to quit taking breaks for make-up updates. He liked that.”

Music is a big part of the Mango vibe, even though Mango hosts only three or four shows a year, with only 50 seats. Yet some famous musicians play the room. 

“Yes, and everyone who ever did returned to do it again. The California Honey Drops came her after selling out Red Rock (9,500 seats near Denver). They stayed at my house. The second time they came, I put them up at Stoney Creek Lodge and set them up at Temple for the Performing Arts to give them more exposure. They said they wanted to play the Mango and stay at my house in the future.”

Who else has come? 

“I hate that question because I’m afraid I might forget someone. Jon Justice was the first. I met him in Louisville; he’s from Cincinnati. Stephen Kellogg, he’s from Pennsylvania. Ryan Montbleau (Massachusetts). Lipbone Redding (North Carolina), Jonah Smith (New York), Carrie Rodriguez from Texas, Honey Island Swamp Band from New Orleans. I might have some really big news soon, but I can’t say anything yet.” 

Wedeking, who is a very good writer himself, poured his heart out on Facebook while attending to his sister’s death bed in Florida. 

“Six months later, Jonah Smith turned that into his song ‘Ocala.’ That made the front page of the Washington Post, as an extraordinary Christmas present. Now it’s a song that is being covered by really famous singers. Bonnie Raitt even called Jonah when she heard the song and asked for the back story.”

Smith called Wedeking recently from Georgia. 

“He had just played a concert in a loud bar. One customer thanked him and apologized for the crowd. He told Jonah that he heard about a guy in Des Moines who threatens to throw people out if they talk during a performance. Jonah says, ‘His name is Mike, and his place is Flying Mango. If you get a chance, go there.’

“I am so humbled by the number of great relationships my little barbecue has fostered.” ♦


  1. Mike and Suzanne are terrific people. I have enjoyed Mike’s little musings for years. I wish them nothing but the best in retirement and hope it comes to them soon. Happy Trails!!

  2. Walter says:

    Zora? ha that place has karma

  3. Doris Kennedy says:

    Congrats! to my distant cousin! Enjoy your retirement, but the sounds of it, you won’t really retire.

  4. Paul McMahon says:

    Mike is my favorite restaurant owner in the area, and Flying Mango is my favorite restaurant in the area. He’s so personable and caring with his guests. Never short of a good joke. As a fellow pitmaster, I appreciate the real thing.

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