Irish Democrat, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
If there’s one thing that’s obvious about me, it’s that my heritage means a lot to me. Going deep into the past, I’m Slovak on my father’s side of my family, and I’ve always loved Slovakia as a result.
Because of that, the city of Cedar Rapids in Iowa is special to me. It’s the home of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Czech Village, which despite its name also pays tribute to Slovakia. From the moment that I walked into Czech Village in July, my girlfriend Amy McFann, who is well-aware of my heritage, said she had never seen me happier. Seeing as how I get to date her, that’s really saying something.
Cedar Rapids might be as special as Pittsburgh (where Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918) is to my family’s heritage, but my Slovak heritage isn’t where today’s restaurant comes from. Actually, Cedar Rapids has another reason to be special to me.
This would be Amy’s Irish heritage, which also has a home in the City of Five Seasons. Few people know it, but Cedar Rapids has quietly built a substantial Irish population. The city has an Irish District, which hosts an annual party in the summer celebrating the Irish arts and music. I’m not sure how many places there are that have an Irish District and a Czech/Slovak Village, so it’s safe to say that Cedar Rapids likes us.
More evidence that Cedar Rapids has been good to me whenever I’m up there comes in the form of today’s restaurant, the Irish Democrat, which styles itself as an Irish pub with a great menu that specializes in sandwiches. The Irish portion is mainly in the atmosphere, which does look like the pub you’d find across the pond. It’s a relaxed place with good variety, and when there’s a game to be seen, it’s a great place to tune in with a meal.
Where it differs from Irish favorite D’Arcy’s Pint is in its menu. You’ll find Irish stew at the Democrat, but most of the reason you come to this place is the sandwiches. Unlike the typical pub, these are very high-brow sandwiches. You won’t see common things like the club or the BLT here. At the Democrat, those are far too simple. Options include choices such as the North Shore Teriyaki Wrap, with pineapple and cucumbers, the Tipperary Turkey, with bacon, Provolone, Mesquite smoked turkey and fresh spinach or the Sundance Chicken Salad Sandwich, which features Anjou pears.
But when I saw the Democrat’s signature sandwich, aptly titled “The Democrat Special”, I knew that I had my choice. The Democrat Special includes turkey, ham and Swiss on a toasted bun with dill sauce and tomatoes, and if you know me well, you know that there is nothing in that sentence that I didn’t find awesome.
The first thing that makes a good deli sandwich is high-quality ingredients, and this basically comes down to the meat and cheese. They need to be fresh and they need to work well together, and mesquite turkey and ham are always a winning combination. The nutty taste of Swiss is a perfect match with ham, so the Democrat Special has a good foundation to work with here.
But much like the Dirty Sauce at Ike’s Place, it’s the Democrat Special’s spread that really makes it memorable. Rather than a basic mayonnaise or a ranch sauce, the Democrat Special features the Irish Democrat’s signature dill spread. The most accurate description would be that the spread is similar to mayonnaise with the flavor of dill weed infused in it, but that doesn’t really do it justice.
This stuff is awesome, and it pairs perfectly with the meat, cheese and vegetables, which is hardly a surprise. As Amy could tell you, I like to refer to dill as “the money herb” because it seems to bring any food it’s used in to another level. Maybe it’s just my tastes, but I’ve never had anything dill-infused that I didn’t love. By mixing it with the mayonnaise and letting it mingle with the sandwich ingredients, the dill takes a normal sandwich and makes it something worth remembering.
The other nice touch from the Democrat is the toasted sub bun. Not every sandwich should be toasted, but toasting the Democrat Special works great. What you get is a hot and delicious sandwich that really doesn’t last long enough, but is filling nonetheless. Crinkle fries are added to the meal as a nice accompaniment.
There’s little that’s Irish about the food from what I can tell, but the quality of it and the atmosphere more than make up for that. The Irish Democrat also gets extra points for the quality of its staff. On my visit, I had a great conversation with Mike, the bartender. When I told him about my quest to visit the best restaurants in the U.S., he got excited and responded, “Yeah, don’t go to Hardee’s when you’re traveling, try something that’s cool and different.”
Exactly right, Mike, and the Democrat certainly fits. Definitely a place worthy of Amy’s heritage.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. The Democrat’s kitchen closes at 11 on weeknights and midnight on Friday and Saturday. If you get there between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for lunch, you can try the Democrat’s gourmet soup of the day, served with brown bread and honey butter. I’m intrigued.
Wait during my visit: None, but I got in just under the gun. Of course, thanks to the helpfulness of Mike, I would have eaten anyway, but I didn’t find that out until after eating. Like I said, Mike’s a great guy and belongs in the staff Hall of Fame with Jimmy.
Location: You can find the Irish Democrat at 3207 1st Ave SE in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It’s in the northeastern part of the city.
Parking: This is a challenge. There is only parallel parking available, and it’s off to the side on a pocket street in front of the Democrat. It is substantially easier to find a space at night, as there are few spaces.
Cost: Plan on about $10, and not much more than that.
Seating arrangement: It’s a typical pub, which means booths, tables and bar seating available.
Website: Irish Democrat
Specialty items: Sandwiches