Jethro’s BBQ, Des Moines, Iowa
When you think of good barbecue, you tend to think of places like Texas, Memphis, the Carolinas, St. Louis and Kansas City. You don’t think of Iowa, and you certainly don’t think of Des Moines, the capital of the Hawkeye State and a city whose name literally means “from the monks”.
But great barbecue in Iowa is exactly what you find at Jethro’s, which operates two locations in the DSM area, one in the suburb of Altoona and one in the city on the campus of Drake University. Jethro’s has only been around since 2008, but it quickly developed a reputation for quality food and a lot of it.
Part of that was because of a stroke of luck. For those who aren’t familiar with the Missouri Valley Conference, Drake is not exactly a basketball powerhouse. The Bulldogs are known for their track program, and their basketball program traditionally lags in the basement. But the year Jethro’s opened, a little-known point guard named Adam Emmenecker rose to prominence and lifted the Bulldogs to the Missouri Valley title and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Capitalizing on his success, Jethro’s took some of Emmenecker’s favorite eats and combined them into one sandwich, known as the Adam Emmenecker challenge. It includes a pork tenderloin, an Angus burger, beef brisket, applewood-smoked bacon, fried white cheddar cheese, two buffalo chicken tenders all smothered in white cheddar sauce and served with a pound of waffle fries. Its tagline is simply: This could hurt you. The rest is history, as Jethro’s became the spot for sports in central Iowa.
But the Emmenecker and Jethro’s status would not have been possible if the restaurant didn’t know what it was doing on all of its food portions. In fact, Jethro’s is so good at what it does that it’s nearly impossible to go during the state track meet, because everyone knows about it and everyone heads there. What makes it good is that it knows how to do meat and it knows what sauces go well with each one.
Jethro’s serves six barbecued meats, a list that includes brisket, pork, ham, sausage, chicken and turkey. With each meat, there’s a sauce they suggest to go with it. Going for the brisket? Try some of Jethro’s secret thick and sweet sauce. Want to try pork? The Carolina-style thin vinegar-based sauce is for you. Want a little bit of heat, but not a lot? Try the Georgia mustard. Going for some poultry? Alabama white sauce is the sauce of choice, despite not looking a thing like barbecue sauce. Some barbecue pit bosses (mostly in Texas) believe that if people talk about your sauce, you’ve failed, but not here. Good meat is complemented by good sauce, and Jethro’s understands that very well.
As I tend to do, I went for pork and brisket, which was absolutely perfect. The brisket is just heavenly with Jethro’s thick sauce, and the pork works well with either the Carolina or original sauce. I’ve even gone with the Alabama sauce, and that has me wanting to go back to try the chicken. I’m also anxious to try their appetizer of fried white cheddar cheese, which just looks remarkable.
Along with the barbecue, Jethro’s has an abundance of quality sides, such as its mashed potatoes in a cream gravy, waffle fries and shells in white cheddar sauce. I’m not sure why Jethro’s loves using white cheddar so much, but I will never complain about that addition.
With the right ingredients and the right people putting them together, you can get quality barbecue anywhere, it seems. Clearly, you can even do it in the capital of Iowa.
Time to go: Lunch/dinner as long as there’s not a track meet going on. Jethro’s is literally within walking distance of Drake Stadium, so if there’s a meet there, it will be swarmed. Otherwise, you can get a seat.
Wait during my visit: I’ve been on multiple times, and the wait wasn’t horrible either time. You might have to wait a bit, but if it’s not a meet day, it won’t be too bad.
Location: Jethro’s main location is at 3100 Forest Avenue in Des Moines on Drake’s campus. There’s another location in Altoona at 2601 Adventureland Drive.
Parking: That depends. In Altoona, you’re fine. In Des Moines, it won’t be easy. There aren’t many places to park on Drake’s campus, although Jethro’s does have its own lot. You just have to be lucky.
Cost: Not too bad for a place like this, it’ll probably run about $10-15 a person for a very satisfying meal.
Website: Jethro’s BBQ
Specialty items: Barbecue, The Adam Emmenecker