We invite you to vote on your top
Iowa restaurant to “get a good steak.” Help
decide who makes the cut.
By Jim Duncan
Food is the new politics. Both subjects inspire
intense loyalties that are usually only shared
by a minority. Just as Occupy Wall Street fanatics
can’t understand how anyone could support supply-side
economics, deep dish pizza fans can’t understand
how others could prefer tavern-style pizza.
If anything, food arguments are more splintered
than political ones. That’s probably because
every human has a unique combination of 2,000
to 8,000 different “taste buds,” each of which
can be more or less sensitive from one person’s
tongue to another’s. Those different combinations
are as distinctive as fingerprints. Yet most
people want others to like eating the same things
they like to eat.
Troy Trostel’s tenderloin steak at Greenbriar.
At Cityview the First Amendment is our favorite.
We love a good argument. We leave the complexity
of political polling to giants like Gallup,
Rasmussen and Selzer. However, to determine
a consensus about more intricate local tastes,
we instigated the Ultimate Sandwich Challenge
two years ago and followed that up with an Ultimate
Pizza Challenge last year. More than 4,000 people
voted for the their favorite local sandwich
in 2010, and that number more than doubled in
deciding 2011’s pizza argument.
Both competitions spread over several weeks
of voting as we whittled our fields down to
a single popular favorite. In the sandwich challenge,
Uncle Wendell’s pulled pork, Taste of Italy’s
meat ball, B and B Grocery Meat and Deli’s pork
tenderloin and Tasty Taco’s original taco made
it to the final four. B and B’s tenderloin won
the title in a final over Taste of Italy’s meatball.
In the pizza challenge, the final four — Gusto,
Bambino’s, Pagliai’s and Angelo’s — survived
the challenge of 38 other nominated pizzerias
before Gusto edged Pagliai’s in a tight final.
This year we’re expanding the challenge beyond
the metro, asking you to determine Iowa’s ultimate
place for steak.
Wilson (Proof) makes once tough shoulder
into tender steak.
The aroma of freshly-cut meat searing quickly
over an open flame is a primal scent — one that
encouraged our human progenitors to straighten
their spines, walk on two legs, fashion spears
and invent fire. During the second half of the
19th century, beef steak became an international
obsession and status food. It transformed the
American range into the world’s largest feed
lot. Between the Civil War and 1880, Midwest
cattle populations increased 30 times over.
Because Iowa’s fertile soil grew the most grain,
the state’s fatted cows produced the gold standard
of this new food economy at a time when food
drove all economies.
For a century, the status of Iowa beef extended
to New York City steakhouses and beyond. In
1959, Des Moines’ Harry Bookey, then 11, told
Russian Premiere Nikita Khrushchev that the
U.S.S.R. might have an edge in satellite technology,
but our beef was superior. Khrushchev, a staunch
Russian chauvinist, conceded the point to the
young debater. Coincidentally, Bookey would
become both a lawyer and a restaurateur.
Steak and the Iowa Dream
When Khrushchev visited Des Moines, Iowa beef
represented the culmination of one of the great
romances in the histories of both agriculture
and human migration. When Europeans got word
about the fertility of Iowa’s black soil, immigrants
flocked across oceans, mountains and hostile
forests to realize the American dream of owning
land from which they could make a good life.
By the end of the 19th century, those immigrants
made Iowa a rich state built on fields of grain
and pastures of plenty. That wealth was sustainable
and a source of pride. Fields produced corn
in such abundance that farmers fed it to cattle
that grazed their youth away in clover. Those
corn-finished cows moved short distances to
packers and lockers. Our steaks were Iowan from
birth to aging rooms and famous for their superior
By 1970, about 70 percent of Iowa farmers were
raising cattle. Iowa led the nation in beef
production between World War II and the 1980s,
peaking in 1969 at seven million head of cattle.
But big changes came by the 1980s. Because fossil
fuels were cheap and Iowa farm land was not,
it became more economical for packers to ship
grain out west and finish cattle there. Former
cattle ranches in Iowa could then be plowed
over and planted with government-subsidized
corn and beans. By the end of the 20th century,
most industrial beef came from multiple plants,
multiple states and even multiple continents.
Today less than a third of Iowa farmers raise
cattle. In 2010 our feedlot population reached
a post-World War II low at 1.8 million. Iowa
slipped to the No. 7 cattle state, trailing
states with large tracts of cheaper land.
steak is now a hot item.
As the center of the beef universe moved west
from Iowa, the aura of our steakhouse traditions
grew like nostalgia at a class reunion. These
old culinary symbols of Iowa represented the
proud final link of the great 19th- and 20th-century
food chain that stretched from Iowa cornfields
and cattle barns to the dining rooms of the
best-fed people in world history. Steakhouses
became touchstones to a great source of Iowa
pride and to a collective longing for halcyon
days when corn was used for the sustenance of
superior livestock, not to fuel cars, sweeten
soft drinks or add cheap filler to practically
every processed item one can find in a supermarket.
Steakhouses are also touchstones to the farms
and small towns from which many of Des Moines-area
families moved. Three-fourths of Iowa counties
peaked in population more than 100 years ago
while Des Moines grew continuously. Steakhouses
used to cover the state. In smaller towns, they
often became surrogate country clubs and were
the nicest places in entire counties for people
to celebrate special occasions of life. Archie’s
Waeside in LeMars became a bona fide foodie
legend with its dry aging room, James Beard
Award winning wine cellar, garden and nearby
landing strip for private planes.
In Iowa’s larger towns, steakhouses developed
a wood-and-leather aura that declared, “Real
men eat here and cut big deals.” Steaks became
an American icon for substance. After all, no
Madison Avenue advertising agency, nor any presidential
candidate, ever asked “Where’s the bran?”
Steakhouse sub genres
The traditional steakhouse carried a rich and
masculine image, often with stained glass lamps,
linen-covered tables, leather chairs and booths,
plus bold art or dead animals on its walls.
Trostel’s Greenbriar, 801 Steak and Chop House,
Sambetti’s, Big Steer, Maxie’s and Jesse’s Embers
have represented that in Des Moines for decades.
Urban steakhouses developed new auras. Family-friendly
ones, usually Greek-owned, broke through in
the early 1960s with inexpensive steaks and
a no-frills, cafeteria-style ambiance. Mr. Filet
is a longstanding original from this tradition,
but chains like Golden Corral, Bonanza and Ryan’s
also fit the bill. They found a niche in Iowa
at a time when both the restaurant and cattle
industries were changing, from independent businesses
that competed on quality to corporations driven
by economic efficiencies. About that same time
the U.S. Department of Agriculture downgraded
its own rating system for beef, bestowing an
aegis of quality on grades previously deemed
Beginning in the 1980s, large restaurant companies
took the steakhouse into theme park land. Australian
chains like Outback; cowboy chains like Montana
Mike’s, Lone Star and Longhorn; nostalgic chains
like Texas Roadhouse and Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse;
do-it-yourself steakhouses like Rube’s and Iowa
Beef; and Japanese teppanyaki like Ohana and
Taki burst upon the central Iowa scene. As the
head of the trendy snake swallowed its tail,
linen tablecloth, prime beef steakhouses, like
Fleming’s and AJ’s at Prairie Meadows, made
a comeback. At Sbrocco, chef Andrew Meek began
featuring grass-finished beef raised on certified
organic pasture, as it was 150 years ago in
Today steakhouse status is as high as ever.
They are even granted special compensation on
expense account budgets, because they are a
mythological symbol of deal-making. Pharmaceutical
salespeople note that even cardiovascular physicians
like to be taken to the best steakhouses. New
York Times publisher, Arthur Salzburger Jr.,
once joked during a caucus season that 801 was
better known in Manhattan than in Des Moines.
Des Moines’ steak
Steak has become such an Iowa icon that all
types of restaurants now serve it here. French
cafés like Django, Baru66, Tartine and Bistro
Montage have all featured steak frites. Carne
asada is served in most Mexican restaurants
of Des Moines. Even “Mongolian” barbecues specialize
in steak. Italian and Greek restaurants here
are much more likely to feature steaks than
are restaurants in Italy or Greece. Des Moines’
main stake to steak fame evolved from those.
Just about every city restaurant that serves
steak serves a version of steak de Burgo. Yet,
this dish is virtually unknown outside Iowa,
though its distinctive sauce is quite similar
to chimichurri sauce of South America, zip sauce
of Detroit, and allioli of Catalonia and Valencia.
Adamant arguments ensue about: 1) Who invented
steak de Burgo (Johnny Compiano or Vic Talerico);
2) Should steak be made with butter, olive oil
or both; and 3) Should it be thickened into
a cream sauce or not? One plausible explanation
for steak de Burgo’s name is that it evolved
cynically out of the Spanish Civil War. During
that conflict, Catalonia and Valencia were Republican
strongholds, while Burgos was the Nationalists’
base. After the latter prevailed, references
to all things from Catalonia and Valencia became
taboo in Generalissimo Franco’s dictatorship.
Enterprising chefs changed names instead of
recipes. The first Des Moines recipes for de
Burgo resembled the “allioli” of Catalonia and
Valencia. So it would have made sense for a
Spanish chef to rename such a preparation “de
Burgos” after Franco’s stronghold. And a number
of Spaniards immigrated to the same Francis
Avenue neighborhood of Des Moines where both
Compiano and Talerico lived as young men.
Irony stalks steak de Burgo. The oldest Greek
steakhouse in Iowa, Mason City’s Northwestern,
has always served a specialty called “Greek-style
steak” that resembles the earliest olive oil-and-garlic
versions of Des Moines’ steak de Burgo. Yet
a Greek steakhouse in West Des Moines, Johnny’s
Vets Club, invented the creamy version of steak
de Burgo that half of Des Moines loves and another
Ethanol’s contribution to steakhouse
Steak irony in Iowa doesn’t end with de Burgo.
One of the latest developments in high-end steak
has been fueled by the ethanol craze that has
diverted Iowa corn from livestock to gas tanks.
Atlantic’s Alan Zellmer is using the leftovers
from distiller grain to feed Iowa wagyu — that’s
the Japanese breed used to create legendary
Kobe beef, famous for its marbling and healthy
profile of good cholesterols. Zellmer originally
raised all his cattle for the Japanese market,
but now it’s all sold domestically. Local chefs
like Troy Trostel of Greebriar and Matt Steigerwald
from Lincoln Café have been using wagyu from
Majinola Meats of Panama, Iowa.
Another new development has long-term potential.
Tenderizing technologies now soften tougher
cuts of beef, making them suitable for steaks.
That’s why you see many new steaks — Denver,
Cordelico, Cabrosa — at the supermarket. Many
of those cuts used to be only suitable for burger.
In Your Hands
Thus, finding your favorite place for steak
is more complicated than ever. There are more
kinds of steak — from more parts of the cow
— than there used to be. There are also multiple
ethnic styles of preparing it, and probably
more than a dozen versions of some styles, such
as de Burgo. Price matters these days, and some
places are exponentially more expensive than
So raise a glass of Zinfandel (the all-American
wine and steak’s perfect mate) and let the rest
of Des Moines know what you think is our Ultimate
Place for Steak. We’ll be taking nominations
for another week. The earlier you nominate,
the more likely your favorite is going to make
the top 64. On Sept. 6, we’ll publish the names
of the 64 places with the most nominations.
Then, you, the reader, will halve that list
each week until you choose the final winner.
We’ll publish its name in the Oct. 25 issue
in an expanded Food Dude section.
Bon appetit. CV