food & drink

Food Dude

By Jim Duncan


Heirloom Diners

Our recent annual reviews of fast food in Des Moines inspired a number of readers to respond. Most comments can be summed up as, “Why do you bother with these evil hawkers of corporate greed?” Others offered more constructive suggestions by touting independently owned places that show that “fast and inexpensive dining need not be soulless.” Thanks to those readers, we discovered or rediscovered three places that are anything but soulless.

As its name suggests, The Café is a no nonsense joint. This recently redesigned 40-seater packs them in for short order breakfasts and lunches. The venue is brighter, cleaner and more efficient than it was as any of its four previous incarnations. The air conditioning even works now. Décor includes framed recipes, copper baking molds and a Woolworth’s menu from the days when 40 cents could buy anything on that menu. Indoor and outdoor blackboards tout a daily special, and it’s not unusual to see pick-up trucks driving by to check it out. The special is often sold out soon after noon.

Although it’s only been open a few months, The Café is an integral part of its neighborhood that regulars explained is “NOT Highland Park, it’s just close.” I’d return just to eavesdrop, as every conversation seemed to be communal. The Café reminds me of cafés in Steinbeck or O Henry stories: Diners theorized on the psychological origins of one regular’s flat top hair cut, another’s habit of always lighting a cigarette with two matches and a third’s penchant for ordering the exact same meal every day. The short order cooking was excellent with huge portions being the standout feature. Breakfast is offered anytime, and I haven’t found larger servings of hashbrowns or omelets since Boswell’s heyday. I arrived too late for both beef & noodles and pot roast specials, but their gravies looked to be genuinely sourced from pan drippings. I came earlier for meat loaf and for four pieces of deep fried chicken with escalloped potatoes and an entire ear of peaches and cream corn — all for $6.

Our Maid-Rite story inspired two excellent touts. Jim’s Coney Island produces the same recipe chilies and loose meat sandwiches that we have reviewed highly at Ted’s Coney Island. It also produces similar gyros and steak sandwiches. Jim’s unique touches include a separate bar, where one can catch a beer and a game with one’s coney, plus house roasted pork and beef. Jim’s coney style roast pork, served on a hot dog bun, is a one-of-a-kind sandwich that deserves acclaim. My first one led quickly to my fourth.

Paula’s in Valley Junction was highly recommended by one of Iowa’s top chefs, as well as by multiple fans of “heirloom maid-rites without the corporate controls.” Open only for lunch, Paula’s has the same “everybody knows your name” vibe as The Café. This place used to be a Maid-Rite, but they opted out so that they could continue making loose meat from scratch rather than buying a prepared product from the corporation. I agree with readers that these “beef-rites” taste like Maid-Rites from the old days, piled so high with moist, seasoned meat that spoons are essential. Paula’s also makes good home made soups — particularly a potato soup with chicken stock base. Their specialty though is their perfectly crusted pies made with local fruit they often pick themselves — blackberry, apple, rhubarb, strawberry and even Concord grapes.

Bottom line — I will keep visiting all three of these places long after this job is done.


Side Dishes
Robin’s Wood Oven Grill, the revivalist of “Fresh & Local” philosophy in Des Moines, closed after 23 years. Owner Dan Smith said the restaurant had not been doing well for a while and it was time to stop the bleeding. … Casa di Vino hosts a tasting of wines for winemakers — “Blends: The Winemakers’ Art” on Tuesday, September 22. CV


Caption: Paula’s beef-rite reminds readers of Maid-Rite’s from their youth.

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