food & drink

Food Dude

April 28, 2011 |

By Jim Duncan


Lost in plain sight


As readers remind me, new joints get far more media attention than the tried and true. Reliable older places just aren't perceived as sexy. Even some kinds of new places can become lost in plain sight for that same reason.

Noodles has been serving old-fashioned Calabrese dinners at bargain prices for nearly 20 years. Their recipes go back much further — to Aunt Jenny's, a mid 20th century restaurant where the movers and shakers of Des Moines hung their hats. Jenny Randa was a great grandmother to Noodles' Pete Leonetti. Her marinara is the unofficial red sauce of south side Des Moines. Her manicotti recipe is still followed in Noodles' best pasta dish. Every day, Noodles features a $5.75 pasta lunch special that also includes garlic toast and a soft drink. Dinner specials run $6.75 to $7.50 and include huge servings of pasta and sauce plus hot garlic bread and salads. Pasta dishes are also sold by the pan.

On my most recent visit, I found the place unchanged from a decade ago. Baseball and Rat Pack photos covered the walls, meatballs melted in my mouth and marinara still had the deepest sweet tomato flavor in town. Italian beef and sausage sandwiches still came with a choice of hoagie buns or the softer Italian bread of 50 years ago. Cigarette smoke even wafted like in another era.

Not too long ago, Olympic Flame was the only place to dine in East Village. It's almost invisible these days, surrounded by many of the state's trendiest new cafés. The place had been spruced up though, more in keeping with old clichés about urban Greek restaurants than with historic building integrity. A cerulean and white paint job, travel posters and faux Greco Roman columns dominated the décor. The menu still carried all the standards of Greek American cafes. I tried nicely seared gyros, crunchy falafel and under stuffed spanakopita (cheese and spinach phyllo turnovers). All dinners included tiropita (cheese turnovers), spanakopita, dolmas (meat stuffed grape leaves) and pasta. A "combo platter" included only pasticcio and moussaka, two dishes that resemble more familiar Italian fare. A "Greek village" salad was superb, with no lettuce but lots of cucumber, tomato and Feta in tangy dressing. An order of "baby squid" delivered eight giant rings (a few were broken) of a mature squid or cuttlefish. Tzatziki and the lemon butter sauces rocked. Belly dancers were scheduled for later in the week.

Rice Bowl has been a Beaverdale standby since the Kennedy era. On a recent visit, several customers told me they had been eating there since then. Seniors have special radar for bargains. One passed on these wise words at Rice Bowl: "If a place has been around for 30 years, it's probably retired its mortgage and can afford to compete for customers with lower prices." The menu was still dominated by some under $10 dishes I had not tried in decades — egg foo young, chop suey, chow mein and fried rice combos. Heavy sauces were Proustian in their timelessness.

Natural Thirst hasn't been around as long as these other places, but it is nearly invisible in a hallway of the downtown library. A regular passerby, I had never noticed them until positive testimonies began piling in my e-mail box. I visited twice for superb vegetarian sandwiches, with some of the richest pesto spreads anywhere, and fresh squeezed juices. One fan told me about losing 40 pounds after switching to their lunches last year.


Side Dishes


Smokey D's bested 30 teams to win the Grand Championship at the inaugural Sam's Club BBQ Series competition in Arizona… TV BBQ star Moe Cason will serve his Q at 21st & Forest during the Drake Relays. CV


Caption: Noodles red sauce is south side Des Moines' red sauce. Noodles, 2924 S.W. Ninth St., 283-1218. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.



Olympic Flame, 514 E. Grand Ave., 243-4361. Hours are Monday, 10:30 a.m. to 2: 30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.


Rice Bowl, 2607 Beaver Ave., 255-0165. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.


Natural Thirst, 1000 Grand Ave., 309-1582. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.