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By Jim Duncan Reviews

El Chisme
2920 Merle Hay Road 255-5756
Tues. - Sat 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.; Sun. 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.

La Cabana 1541 6th Ave., 244-7999
Daily 10 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.

Viva los Forasteros

These are difficult times for opening a new Latino restaurant. There’s already a loaded burrito of competition and the mobile, seasonal taco stands are popping up like spring flowers. Wholesale food prices are moving north while diners stay home to fight inflation. Yet, thanks to the indomitable spirit of the American immigrant, brave souls keep entering this gateway to the entrepreneurial dream. With more than a score of Latino restaurants serving pretty much the same menus, a new place needs a hook to get noticed. The two latest Latin American cafes in town have them.

The Ojeda family’s friendly café says it all in its name — El Chisme Tacqueria & Pizzeria. Combining pizza and tortilla production makes so much sense I can’t believe it took so long for someone to do it here. Change the size and the dough recipe and you’re making the same thing. El Chisme’s menu stays simple and traditional. The appetizer list offered nachos or bread sticks, fruit bowls or garlic bread, plus chicken wings in three degrees of spiciness. Fresh tortilla tacos were offered in three sizes, another fine new idea. All included two tortillas ranging in size from the diameter of a Big Gulp cup ($1 taquito) to that of a medium frying pan ($3 super taco). The latter were advertised credibly as the “biggest in Des Moines.” Even larger were the El Chisme quesadilas ($6) and burritos ($6). I also enjoyed a chicken torta, which included beans and thick avocado slices on a fresh hoagie sized roll. Try asking for that at Subway.

El Chisme’s pastor (marinated pork) was a disappointing departure from traditional poblano style. Instead of roasting and slicing meat gyros-style on a rotisserie, cubed pork had been grilled with hunks of pineapple and onions. Other tortilla stuffers were better: chicharron (fried skin) was served in a good green salsa; beefy tasting tongue was sautéed; and cheeks, tripe and chicken were also offered.

My pizza was the happiest surprise — an excellent, medium thick, fresh crust, with good sauce and Graziano sausage. Frijoles and pastor provided experimental options. In other nice touches, both the horchata (sweet rice drink) and fruit punches (pineapple, lemonade and Jamaica) were home made, a diligence that has been disappearing from other local restaurants.

At La Cabana, the Leiva Lara family’s hook is less obvious. In fact, you need to see their newspaper ads to know about it. The café also offers fresh produce to the public at bargain prices ($.79 pound for tomatoes). They have big screen projection for soccer games and a club-class sound system playing contemporary Latino music. They served an expanded menu of Salvadoran and Mexican fare, including full breakfasts with fried plantains and Salvadoran cream. I tried a weekend special calf’s foot soup, which was far less intimidating than some other versions in town.

La Cabana’s pastor was also non traditional, so I tried sopitas with shredded beef and a pupusa with chicharron and cheese. Both were made from scratch with fresh masa (corn meal batter) and were as good as any I’ve ever tried. The pupusa oozed flavors and was served with superb fresh curtido (slaw) and a sweet orange salsa that seemed to have been made with carrot juice. The sopito was stuffed with guacamole, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese — sort of a Salvadoran calzone. La Cabana has taken over a building where three excellent Asian restaurants failed. They continue that tradition of excellent food, may their luck be better.

Side dishes

The 2008 Alaskan sockeye salmon season opened last week with Copper River. Continental United States waters have been closed to salmon fishing, so it’s now finally possible for “wild USA” sockeye being sold as “fresh” in Des Moines to actually be less than nine months old. Gateway Market and Waterfront Seafood Market and Restaurant both announced they would have fresh Copper River salmon by the end of the month… Three years in the making, Django brasserie opens this week in the Hotel Fort Des Moines with a casual French menu. CV

Food Dude Reviews 2008 2007 Reviews
Splash Raw Oyster Bar (1-3-08) Flavors of India(1-10-08)
Uncle Wendell's (1-17-08) Jesse's Embers (1-24-08)
Taste of Elegance (1-31-08) Old Country Buffet (2-7-08)
Baker’s Food & Fuel (2-14-08) Coffee (2-21-08)
Cool Basil (2-28-08) Sports Bars (3-06-08)
Daddy O’s Bodacious Foods (3-13-08) Maverick Grill (3-20-08)
Phat Chef’s (4-03-08) Shotz & Grill Cordoba (4-10-08)
Radish (4-17-08) Alba (4-24-08)
Billy Mack's (5-01-08) Jethro’s BBQ & Sports Bar (5-15-08)

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