Emil’s Hideaway, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
If there ever was a restaurant that really lived up to its name, this would be the one. Emil’s Hideaway, located in the northern part of Cedar Rapids, is right off one of the main roads in the city, but no driver would ever be able to spot it. That’s because it’s literally tucked away behind a Taco John’s, with all of its signs blocked by the Mexican fast-food chain’s building. Even on its website, it says that you’ll need directions to find it. It’s the kind of place you would never know is there unless you’re actively looking for it, and even then, there’s still a better than average chance that you’re going to miss it entirely. There’s no doubt, this place is definitely a true hideaway.
And as with most hidden spots, this one is a true gem that’s worth the effort to find. Emil’s Hideaway stems from the original Emil’s Deli, which has been a Cedar Rapids institution for a half-century. When a restaurant has been around for that long, there’s usually a pretty good reason for it, and in this case, the reasons are environment and quality.
First, there’s the environment. This place is incredibly relaxed, even when you’re waiting for a table. The booths are comfortable, the art on the walls provides a welcoming atmosphere and the tables have small trees of light that give off the feeling of privacy while keeping the relaxed vibe of it being a place to watch a game or hang out with friends. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, and Emil’s pulls it off well.
When your goal is to be a top restaurant, though, all of the atmosphere in the world won’t mean a thing unless you’ve got the food quality to go along with it. Luckily, Emil’s is even stronger in this area, and it starts with their array of appetizers, which include beer-battered cheese sticks, onion strings with homemade ranch sauce and stuffed mushrooms topped with a five-cheese blend, all of which sound incredible.
But as you might have guessed, Amy and I opted for something completely unique, starting our meal with the chicken rangoons. Amy is a huge fan of crab rangoons, and the combination of chicken, cheese, onions and spices inside the fried shell was something different that appealed to both of us. It was definitely the right call, as these things had the perfect texture while providing a nice kick without being overwhelming. I’ve made clear my feelings on spicy foods, but I enjoy a good kick when it doesn’t dominate the flavors, and this was exactly the case here with a mild but noticeable spice that worked perfectly with the chicken and cream cheese. Amy, of course, was quite happy with the heat, and we enjoyed every bit of this start to our evening.
With the rangoons out of the way, it was time for our actual meal to begin, and at Emil’s, that usually involved a blend of cheeses known as apple jack. Apple jack cheese gives the impression of being Monterey Jack cheese smoked over apple wood, but that’s actually not the case at all. Instead, apple jack cheese takes its name from the Apple River Dairy in Apple River, Ill., and has nothing to do with apple wood or smokiness. The cheese is actually a mixture of Swiss and Monterey Jack, which means a large amount of mild taste and creamy texture.
I’d never heard of apple jack cheese before this night, so I wanted to get something that included it, which meant sampling one of Emil’s multitude of sandwiches. I’m also a big fan of both sourdough bread and the truly unique, so the Shrimp Bacon Club definitely caught my eye. As you might expect, the Shrimp Bacon Club replaces the traditional ham and turkey with jumbo shrimp, creating a completely different taste from any club I’d ever had. But at the same time, I was curious to see what Emil’s original Club sandwich was like and compare it to the seafood-inspired take on the classic sandwich.
The solution? Of course, Amy, who was also intrigued by both items, had the perfect plan: order both sandwiches and each of us have half of each one. I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood. Along with our sandwiches, we decided to add garlic mashed potatoes, fries and some of the homemade ranch dressing for dipping. Yes, we like ranch sauce to dip our fries. We also like fry sauce and even straight mayonnaise for them (and will create fry sauce at pretty much every opportunity), but homemade ranch could not be ignored.
Both sandwiches were nothing short of fantastic. The shrimp is seared to perfection and works beautifully with the bacon, and the ham and turkey on the regular club is prepared about as well as any deli meat I’ve had in quite a while. Emil’s uses quality ingredients wherever possible in all of their items, and it’s obvious with whatever you try on this menu that attention to detail is very high on the priority list.
That brings me back to the apple jack cheese, which is smooth and melted on the sandwich while complementing the other flavors rather than dominating them. I love cheese, but it’s really remarkably easy to get cheese wrong in a dish. If the cheese hasn’t melted on a hot sandwich or dish, you’ve done something wrong. If the cheese is the only thing that you can taste in the meal and the other flavors can’t come through, it means you’ve used too much cheese and you’ve overwhelmed the dish, which is never a good thing no matter how much you love cheese. That isn’t the case with the apple jack cheese. It’s exactly the way that cheese on a hot sandwich should be.
The garlic mashed potatoes were just as excellent, as were the fries dipped in the homemade ranch sauce. What’s more, the portions can get pretty large at Emil’s. Although we’d had several hours in between meals, Amy was only able to finish the club half of the sandwich halves in front of her, and although she loved it (as well as everything that she’d consumed at Emil’s), she was disappointed that she hadn’t had enough room to enjoy both sandwiches.
That’s the lesson that comes here if you’re able to find Emil’s: you want to make sure that you’ve got enough room to try a variety of items, because there’s quality all over the menu here. I’d say it’s a shame that it’s so well hidden, but it honestly isn’t because despite its location, Emil’s is a well-known spot in the City of Five Seasons that fills up pretty quickly. This place is so good that even when drivers can’t find it from a main road, it still gets attention and a reputation for providing some of the city’s best meals. That’s about as high praise as a restaurant can hope to get.
Time to go: Lunch, dinner or late night. Don’t go on Sunday, they’re closed on Sundays, but every other day sees the Hideaway stay open until 2 a.m.
Wait during my visit: Lengthy, but this was probably because Iowa’s men’s basketball team was on television against Illinois when we showed up. As Cedar Rapids is only 20 miles north of Iowa City, it’s got a fairly large Hawkeye contingent, and a lot of Iowa fans will likely show up at Emil’s when the Hawkeyes are on television. If Iowa or Iowa State is playing, plan on waiting for a table.
Location: Emil’s is located at 222 Glenbrook Drive Southeast, which is directly off of First Avenue but hidden behind Taco John’s from your viewpoint on First Avenue. If you have trouble finding it, your best bet is to turn right before reaching the Home Depot and then turning right again to move toward Emil’s.
Cost: This isn’t too bad, as most sandwiches are about $10-11. If you get an appetizer, plan on about $30 total.
Parking: This can fill up a little bit, but the presence of Home Depot means if the lot does get full, just go into the Home Depot’s lot and walk over. I would not advise doing this in February, but when the weather’s good, it makes perfect sense.
Seating arrangements: Booths, tables and chairs, which are pretty comfortable.
Website: Emil’s Hideaway
Specialty items: Chicken rangoons, shrimp bacon club, apple jack cheese