On the edge of town

Places to explore while you’re here

By Jim Duncan


Pork tenderloin from Nick’s

Pork tenderloin from Nick’s

The Iowa high school version of March Madness is not what it used to be in downtown Des Moines. Of the four big weeks of competitions, only the state individual wrestling championship still sells a significant number of tickets, and it’s now held in February. The basketball tournaments still draw a large number of fans, but they have maintained total attendance by adding classes, teams, days of competition and games per day.

The days of fans coming long distances to watch the entire tournament are as by-gone as six-on-six basketball. Most out-of-town fans come for their team’s game, but they now go home afterward. The basketball tourneys do not impact downtown hotels and restaurants like wrestling does. The no pass-out policy that came with the move to Wells Fargo Arena has restricted the number of fans who used to pack the skywalk and downtown eateries.

Fans might come and go, but they still want to eat something in Des Moines or close by on their routes home. You’ll find plenty of good options on these pages and throughout downtown and all of the metro. Like most travelers, people away from home still like to try something unique to the place they are visiting. And if you are willing to venture out from the skywalks, here are some of our favorite places in greater Des Moines near major routes in or out of downtown that you might consider.


Southeast 14th Street is full of well-kept dining secrets. Luigi’s (2811 S.E. 14th St., 330-2112, open for dinner beginning at 4:30 p.m. Monday – Saturday) is a newcomer to the Italian scene in Des Moines. Its owners come from dairy-rich Lake Como instead of southern parts of the country. In fact, its “Calabrese sauce” is made with cream and brandy, things not associated with Calabria in Des Moines. Traditions like homemade pasta, divine homemade yeast rolls and rich tomato sauces are found here. So are some other dishes not often found in Des Moines. There are six different veal dishes, all priced less than $17, including a salad. Lobster ravioli and shrimp Luigi are specialties that get creamy treatments. The entire wine list fits in the $20-30 range.

Kathmandu (4121 S.E. 14th, 207-1463, open for lunch buffet and dinner Thursday – Tuesday) is Des Moines’ first Nepalese café. That basically means Indian cuisine with Chinese influences, particularly dumplings. The lunch buffet is a great way to try several dishes at one fixed price. There are great vegetarian options as well.

Nick’s (1106 Army Post Road, 777-2759, open for lunch and dinner Monday – Saturday, lunch on Sunday) is a drive-in style café that has a full menu of sandwiches, pizza and appetizers, but its reputation is based on its breaded pork tenderloin, which is legendary, having won the Pork Producers best in Iowa citation, and its Italian-style beef, also a paragon of Italian Des Moines. Friday nights draw classic car rallies.


Chuck’s (3610 Sixth Ave., 244-4104, open for dinner Tuesday – Saturday) has been a draw for tournament fans since 1956. This Calabrese café offers one of the best pizza menus in Iowa, still made in the original oven. Live music and a full Italian menu keep people happy. Steak dinners, with bread, salads and two sides, top out at $25. Chicken livers are still popular here.

Pho All Seasons (11 E. Euclid Ave., 330- 1840; open from lunch on Monday, lunch and dinner Tuesday – Sunday) is an all female-run Vietnamese café without peer. It offers Southeast Asian delicacies in humble surroundings for great prices. Besides the usual soups and noodle dishes, one finds such things as chao tom (a paste of fresh shrimp, garlic and shallots around grilled sugar cane stalks, topped with peanuts and scallions in a sweet peanut sauce), sugar cane-infused shrimp and banh xeo (rice flour crepes stuffed with shrimp, sliced pork, bean sprouts and scallions).


The Big Steer in Altoona

The Big Steer in Altoona

The Big Steer (1715 Advenutreland Drive, Altoona, 967-6933, open daily for dinner, plus brunch on Sunday) deserves its name. Everything is super-sized, beginning with the iconic sign. This is an old-fashioned supper club specializing in flame-grilled, naturally aged beef. Prices are extreme discounts compared to the city’s most famous steakhouses. The most expensive meal I have seen here cost $40, and that was for a 40-ounce ribeye dinner. Other steak and prime rib dinners top out at $31. Carryout dinners for two cost just $25 and include four options.

Butler Café in the Brick Street Market (114 Brick St. S.E., Bondurant, 967-2220, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday – Saturday) is a 1950s throwback café in a state-of-the-art supermarket, surely the most amazing small-town market in Iowa, if not the USA. Among the café’s signatures are loose meat sandwiches, breaded pork tenderloins, fried chicken, burgers, meat loaf, keg root beer and onion rings.


Los Laureles (1518 E. Grand Ave., 265-2200, open for lunch and dinner daily) is the epitome of Michoacan-Jaslico cuisine, Des Moines’ main style of Mexican. Its bargain prices attract significant crowds from all ethnic groups. Chips are served with multiple salsas. Carnitas, pastor, steaks, chicken and fish dishes include beans, rice, salads and deep flavored sauces. Open until 3 a.m. on weekends.


Taste of New York (165 S. Jordan Creek Parkway, 223-8669, open for lunch and dinner Tuesday – Saturday) won Cityview readers’ Ultimate Pizza Challenge. This place is the serendipitous result of an entire family moving to greater Des Moines from Brooklyn. It brings true New York style to its pizzeria with slices, Gino’s Italian ices and spumoni, cannoli, calzones, stuffed rolls and arancini. It’s the pie that brings people back time and again. Huge pies come square or round and fold over to eat like a sandwich.

Wasabi (9500 University Ave., Waukee, 265- 2200, open for lunch and dinner daily) brings the same high quality sushi/ceviche/poke and Asian-style cooked dishes as its downtown and Merle Hay area restaurants. Daily fish menus tout exotic fresh-flown delicacies, like baby yellowtail and blue fin toro, from Hawaiian and Atlantic sources. Presentations are splendid.

Kue’d (245 E. Hickman Road, Waukee, 987-4972, open for lunch and dinner Tuesday – Saturday) is the area’s smokehouse newcomer. It’s owned by Shad Kirton, who won the largest-ever prize in competition BBQ, the TLC channel’s “BBQ Pitmasters.” Meats are never re-heated. Each meat is served until it’s sold out daily. Scratch-made, seasonal side dishes like green apple salad and casoulet stand out.


Tenderloin at Greenbriar

Tenderloin at Greenbriar

Trostel’s Greenbriar (5810 Merel Hay Road, Johnston, 253-0124, open for lunch Monday – Friday, dinner Monday – Saturday) is a family-friendly, fine-dining spot famous for its steaks. Its gunpowder ribeye is so popular that it now sells the gunpowder rub to go. Steak and prime rib dinners cost less than $30. Classic French sauces are available with any dish. The escargot with puff pastry is legendary.


Hurt’s Donut Company (5513 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines, open 24-7) is the hottest donut maker in town. People line up at all hours for oversized, heavily iced, specialty donuts. These donuts are not for people on any form of a serious diet. They travel well and make great thank you tokens for the people who babysat while you went to the game.

Fire Creek Grill (800 South 50th, West Des Moines, 224-0500, open for lunch and dinner Monday – Saturday) is another friendly, fine-dining alternative to more expensive chain restaurants like nearby Fleming’s. Nothing here tops $40, and most dinners are less than $30. Fireplaces and family ownership keep it cozy, too. ♦


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