Best kept-secrets

Popular in their neighborhoods but not necessarily destination restaurants for the general dining public — yet

By Jim Duncan

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with clichés. Too often they are trite or redundant, but sometimes it’s hard to find a better way to describe something. In the food world, we talk about “holes in the wall,” “hidden gems,” “pieces de resistance,” “signature dishes” and “best-kept secrets.” That last phrase has our attention here.

What does it really mean? If something were truly a best-kept secret, then one would not know enough to discuss it. The best-kept secrets die with their beholders, at least for several thousand years like the contents of Tutankhamen’s
tomb, or the locations of the lost cities of Palenque and Machu Picchu. So the term is almost never intended to be used literally. To produce an entire list of best-kept secrets demands some serious definition.

For the purpose of this story, the top dining “secrets” of Des Moines are a series of places that, while quite popular within their neighborhood, their ethnic group or their food cult, have not become destination restaurants for the general dining public. That is something that former “best-kept secrets” — A Dong, Tursi’s Latin King, Baru 66, Strudl Haus, Los Laureles, B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli, Crouse Café, India Star, Thai Flavors, La Mie, South Union Café, G Migg’s, Flying Mango, El Salvador del Mundo, Noodles, Miyabi 9, Nick’s, Tumea & Sons and Baratta’s — have already done.

For purposes of editing, bars that serve superb but limited menus of food were withheld for another time. We still recommend Park Avenue Pub, Kelly’s Little Nipper, Gerri’s, East Fourteenth Street Pub, County Line Café, East 22nd Pub, Club 2000 and Highland Park Country Club, but probably not with the whole family.

Simon’s steaks are one of the best bargains in town.

SIMON’S (5800 Franklin Ave., 255-3725) occupies an old neighborhood grocery store, Mantequisse’s Franklin Food Mart. It has never lost its sense of place and neighborliness. Owner Simon Goheen bought the place a dozen years ago while barely into his 20s. He grew up in the restaurant business and has been the youngest old-fashioned restaurateur in town for quite some time.

People come for the live music, the family’s courtesy bread basket and the bargain prices. The latter include a $17 pan seared duck, a $22 full pound New York strip with a divine spinach sauce, $6 kid’s dinners, and a $19 stroganoff made with loin and strip. All dinners include soup or salad, potato and vegetable of the day. Most nights a complimentary piece of cake is also dispensed.

Wong’s Chopsticks offers lunch specials that keep its regulars returning.

WONG’S CHOPSTICKS (5500 Merle Hay Road, Johnston, 727-5136) is a strip mall family café with a classically trained Chinese chef and some talented daughters. They feature $5-6 lunch specials, shrimp and scallop dishes for less than the $10, and several classic dishes that hard to find elsewhere in town — black mushrooms, black bean sauces, beef ginger tripe, sticky rice in lotus leaves, all kinds of dumplings, chicken feet, jook, and shrimp or beef in rice paper wraps.

Though the store is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, it’s the weekend dim sum service, through 2 p.m., that brings the biggest crowds and includes the most traditional Chinese dishes.

Paula’s loose meat oozes from the bun.

According to people who employ the phrase “best-kept secret,” PAULA’S (524 Elm St., West Des Moines, 277-3404) is what Maid Rite used to be, before corporate conformity modernized it. The loose beef sandwich, now called Made Rite, overflows with beef. Tenderloins, chili, daily specials like meat loaf, and soups like beef and noodle have created regulars on certain days of the week.

ROLLIN WOK (1534 E. Grand. Ave., 991-3569) is the sole Asian café in the Latino strip mall La Placita. They cover the spectrum of Asian food with Chinese, Thai, Pho and Lao menus. Unlike most places that attempt too much, this family café pulls it off superbly. Homemade jerky, larp (Laotian chicken or beef salad of minced chicken or beef cooked with roasted rice, scallion, cilantro and lime juice), basil mussel stir fries and $6 lunch specials keep customers happy. Check out signs for daily specials.

NUT POB (3322 Indianola Ave., 246-8055) is another surprise in a southeast side strip mall. The longest continuously operating Lao café also serves Thai food and pho. They have been around long enough to have doubled their size and survive some stringent remodeling regulations. Still they are mostly a southside café and Asian café. They do larp with pork and tripe, as well as beef and chicken. Angry catfish is a house specialty.

Luigi’s is one of the city’s best kept secrets. The penne pasta with caprese sauce (pictured with owner Baggio Qerimi) keeps
customers loyal, and secretive. Photo by Jeff Pitts.

Baggio Qerimi’s LUIGI’S (2811 S.E. 14th St., 330-2112) brings its Italian inspirations from the Alps rather than the south like most Iowa places. Homemade yeast rolls, cream sauces and veal dishes are more prevalent here. In fact, even their “Calabrese sauce” has cream in it. Dinners, all bargain priced, include salads. The two-room café has a charm that should eventually draw from the whole metro, not just the immediate neighborhood.

The Tollari and Bianchi families took over the Hilltop a dozen years ago without changing much about the dining room and menu that have been a pride to the northeast side for decades. Like most old Italian Des Moines restaurants, chicken livers are still served, pizza are smothered in cheese, ravioli are stuffed with meat or spinach, dinners come with breadbaskets and salads, and meatballs are a house specialty. Unlike most others, Hilltop uses their fryers for walleye, frog legs and catfish as well as shrimp, chicken and onion rings. The latter are served in
three different sizes.

NAMASTE (7500 University Ave., 255-1698) used to occupy a space within a grocery store. It outgrew and annexed the grocery and now is a stand-alone restaurant with a popular lunch buffet. They also serve dinner off the menu in the evenings and specialize in south Indian dishes like biryanis, dosas and utthapams, of which they make eight versions each. They also serve a full northern menu with tandoori and wheat breads. A short Ethiopian and Indo-Chinese (the biggest thing in fusion worldwide) menu round out the most cosmopolitan place in town.

515 (801 University Ave., 243-2434) takes up the southeast corner of the C Fresh Market. Besides the Asian community, it has become one of the most popular restaurants in town with many of the city’s elite chefs. I have seen Joe Tripp, George Formaro, Sean Wilson and Jay Wang eating there. Taking full advantage of the grocery store, this is the most complex Vietnamese café in town. Specials are handwritten on table menus, but not in English. Roast ducks are popular and finish a superb duck soup. A beef stew is a de facto reduced pho. This place has won the Pho King contest two years in a row, with both judges and the public.

After 20 years of operating a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, Nishapat Meesangkaew and family have taken over the former King & I in West Des Moines. The new business is called EAT THAI, THAI EATERY (1821 22nd St., West Des Moines, 440-2075). While the menu looks like many Thai places in town, the execution is superb. Duck and scallops are rare options with all stir fries and curries. ♦

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