Hickory Park Restaurant Co., Ames, Iowa
When the time came to take college visits, one of the main things I remember my mother talking about quite frequently was the importance of the college town. Whenever we went to any college on either mine or my siblings’ wish lists, my mother’s main priority was to see the college town portion of the city. At the time, I didn’t honestly understand the fascination. To me, the town was secondary, the college was the main reason I was interested.
Now that I’ve been able to do some traveling across the country and seen a lot for myself, I can understand why the college town meant so much to her. It’s because the presence of all of those college kids means that the town has to be able to cater to them. Even though college kids don’t have a lot of money, they also don’t have a lot of willpower when it comes to spending. They want to be able to go out on the weekends, and if they’re not able to do that, that’s going to cause a real problem.
As a result, when it comes to the restaurant scene, college towns often punch far above their weight in terms of offering quality. Granted, some of them should, such as Columbus and Madison, because they’re legitimate cities on their own (and they’re actually the capitals of Ohio and Wisconsin respectively) and should have good food scenes. But then you get a place like Ames, Iowa, which is really an afterthought in the Hawkeye State, or at least it would be if not for it being the home of Iowa State University.
Ames is only home to 60,000 people and lives in the shadow of the state capital of Des Moines (40 miles to the north, but admittedly, Des Moines casts quite a large shadow over the rest of Iowa), but this college town has some legitimate options for Cyclones to visit. Creative pizzas convinced Man vs. Food to include an Ames restaurant in its Des Moines episode, and Iowa State’s football press box features what might be the best-kept secret in the sport: its wonderful buttermilk brownies. Those things are so good that I can only conclude that Iowa State is not smart enough to give them to football recruits; otherwise, the Cyclones would be dominating the Big 12 instead of languishing at the bottom of the table.
But one of the older members of that food scene is also one of the best: Hickory Park Restaurant Co., located in downtown (or as close to downtown as it has) Ames. Since 1970, Hickory Park has been the place to go for sandwiches, barbecue and ice cream in Ames, and its standards haven’t slipped at all over 45 years. On the contrary, ever since David Wheelock opened Hickory Park, he’s had to close his doors and relocate twice…because the building he operated in wasn’t big enough to meet the demand.
When Hickory Park opened in 1970, Wheelock was setting up shop in a previously failed barbecue restaurant’s building that had capacity for between 60 and 80 people. He decided that he could succeed where the previous restaurant had failed by sticking with barbecue and adding ice cream to the mix, and somehow or another, it worked. In fact, it worked so well that in 1981, Wheelock closed his first location and opened a new one that featured 250 seats, hoping to appease his customers that found themselves waiting an hour or more for a table.
It worked, but not in the way Wheelock intended. Instead, 16 years later, he found that he needed even more space and closed his second location for a location that almost doubled the space of the second…and it still hasn’t been enough to satisfy the demand. Even today, the waits at Hickory Park can get quite long. In a town of 60,000 people, that’s pretty dang impressive, and that says that this was a place Amy and I had to check out.
As expected, we got caught in the lengthy wait when we entered the building, but it really could have been a lot worse. The wait system is different here, as rather than the usual pagers, Hickory Park will give out numbers to each group and invite five or six numbers at a time to line up to be seated. One hard and fast rule here is that you can get a number at any time, but you can’t sit down until your party is complete. That’s one way to keep the line moving, and it works quite nicely.
Once you get into your seat, you quickly find out that Hickory Park is basically where restaurant meets old-style ice cream fountain. This is the first place I’ve ever been that puts a phosphate on the menu, although interestingly enough, our waitress chose to talk us out of ordering it. When we asked what one was, she told us verbatim, “It’s really gross.”
Undeterred, Amy was still curious, so we were given a free sample of a bubble gum phosphate, which actually didn’t suck as bad as the waitress suggested. Turns out, a phosphate is a sour flavored soda, so if you can handle sour, this might be a decent way to go. For me, I just thought it was okay, but still, considering what was suggested, okay isn’t bad at all.
The main things we came for were dinner and ice cream, and here, we had some high expectations. We decided to start off with a breaded variety plate, which includes mushrooms, cauliflower, onion rings and cheese curds breaded and fried to perfection. Basically, the four items go from the healthy things to the unhealthy, with the cheese curds definitely not going to win any health food awards any time soon. But all four of them have two things in common: great breading and great taste.
When you fry anything, no matter what it is, the breading is crucial. It’s got to stick to the thing being fried, and it’s got to actually add something to the thing being fried. Too much breading can overpower the thing that’s been fried, which is made even worse when a breading isn’t seasoned properly. This breading, however, worked wonderfully. Light, crispy, not too crunchy, not too oily, not too soft and not flavorless. This was good, and the vegetables and cheese were all excellent as well. This is something I’d order again, and I don’t say that about a lot of fried appetizers. Amy and I were very pleased with these.
As far as dinner goes, there’s one major special here: garbage. Specifically and thankfully, the Garbage Burger, which features an array of toppings that would put a lot of other burgers to shame. Bacon, Swiss, American, mushrooms, sauerkraut and ham combine to form the Garbage Burger, which could probably also be called PETA’s Nightmare. There’s three kinds of meat and two kinds of cheese on this burger, which makes for one interesting experience. Of course, I knew this was the one to get.
It’s pretty awesome. Really, the ham and the sauerkraut stand out here, as the ham is cooked well and merges well with the flavors, while the sauerkraut provides a decent texture change and a major flavor change. On top of that, the burger is absolutely nailed perfectly. There’s a lot to like about this burger. Really, the only negative here is with the mushrooms. For some reason, Hickory Park doesn’t treat the mushrooms with the respect they deserve when they’re thrown on to the Garbage Burger. Everything else is grilled properly, flavored properly and heated to the right temperature. But the mushrooms honestly have the taste and texture of the canned mushrooms you can find in the canned vegetable aisle at any grocery store. I’m sorry, but that’s not what mushrooms are supposed to be in a restaurant. They’re supposed to have a different texture and taste than the canned version, usually in a pretty noticeable way.
Amy, never a fan of burgers, opted to go with a different kind of garbage meal: the deli sandwich. Once again, this list reads like some pretty impressive ingredients: ham, turkey, bacon, kraut, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, topped with some hard-boiled egg slices. Normally, it comes with beef, but Amy, of course, has no interest in beef and asked to have it removed. Again, this sandwich is excellent because for some reason, the flavors work. It’s so hard to integrate kraut into a sandwich and have it not suck, but Hickory Park manages to pull it off for the most part.
I say ‘for the most part’ because this sandwich also suffers from mushroom issues. On the Garbage Deli sandwich, the mushrooms aren’t treated any better than they are on the burger. To their credit, they use fresh mushrooms and not canned mushrooms on the deli sandwich. To their discredit, the mushrooms are not sauteed or flavored. They’re just sliced and served. I have no problem with raw mushrooms and enjoy eating them, but on a deli sandwich, raw mushrooms just don’t work with the rest of the sandwich. The flavors have to work together, and not sauteeing the mushrooms damages that cooperation.
But otherwise, that’s about the only thing wrong with what we found here. The sides are decent, but not fantastic, mainly because only a few of them are actually prepared in-house. That’s because Wheelock’s philosophy from the beginning has been that if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all, and he’s stuck with that to this day. Only the salads and barbecue beans are made in the restaurant, so there won’t be anything memorable about the fries or the mashed potatoes, which are real but not mashed in house.. Heck, it might be a better idea to just ditch them entirely in order to save room for the ice cream, because that is definitely worth sticking around for at Hickory Park.
Basically, they focus on taking ice cream they know is good and turning it into some awesome sundaes. There are no fewer than 54 on the menu at Hickory Park, and some of these sound pretty awesome. In order to make the process easier, Hickory Park breaks their sundaes up into categories, such as Peanut Lovers and Candy Bar Sundaes. Some of the selections include the the Streusel Coffee Cake (coffee ice cream on top of streusel coffee cake), Thin Mint (mint chip ice cream mixed with Oreos and topped with a hard chocolate shell), the Golden Roof (vanilla topped with butterscotch and peanuts), the Pink Panther (vanilla and peppermint ice cream) and what I’m sure would be my future mother-in-law and sister-in-law’s favorite, the PB Paradise (fudge brownie topped with peanut butter fudge ice cream, hot fudge and more peanut butter. Wow.
I was tempted, but I had to stay true to my taste buds, and that meant toffee. I love toffee anything, and with the Toffee Park sitting in my sights, there was no way I wasn’t going to try this thing. Much to my pleasant surprise, I found out that the Toffee Park, which features butter pecan ice cream, caramel and hot fudge, making it a lot like what I had at Sucre, features little pieces of English toffee. English toffee might be my greatest weakness (I LOVE Heath Bars), and there was no way I wasn’t going to enjoy this sundae when I saw what ingredients were involved. I loved every bit of this thing.
Amy chose to go for the cake, opting for a Pound Cake Delight that mixed chocolate and vanilla ice cream with hot fudge, marshmallow and pound cake. Cake and ice cream just belong together, and this combination was pretty outstanding as well. The flavors just work from beginning to end, and the multiple ice cream flavors make it a different experience as you get deeper into the sundae and the ice creams melt together to meld the flavors. The vanilla wafer also appears to be a special touch on every sundae they serve, and I’m never going to complain about a free vanilla wafer.
Really, there’s not a lot to complain about here. I would love to see the mushrooms taken care of better, but even with that flaw, that merely downgrades it from “perfect” to “excellent” because of the outstanding ability to succeed with both dinner and dessert. Getting to Ames can be a chore if you’re not already on your way to Minneapolis or Des Moines, but Hickory Park will make sure it’s worth the trip.
Time to go: The short answer is any time between 10:30 a.m. and 9 p.m., or 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The honest answer is to check Iowa State’s schedule on the day you plan to go. If the Cyclones play a home football or basketball game (and that’s either gender, as women’s basketball was for a while the one sport Iowa State did not totally suck at playing), either plan to wait or don’t go that day.
Wait during my visit: Lengthy. Have hope, it does move somewhat quickly for a waiting area this large, but you still probably won’t be seated right away.
Location: Hickory Park is located at 1404 South Duff Avenue in Ames, Iowa.
Cost: Not too bad, Hickory Park doesn’t have most of its entrees top $10. Ice cream costs about $3-4 (and you probably don’t need a large, a small each was enough for us). You might escape getting out for $13-14, an excellent value for the cost.
Parking: There’s actually a lot. Hickory Park thought ahead on this one and went with a big lot that can be accessed in two directions. Good work.
Seating arrangement: Mostly tables and booths, pretty standard.
Website: Hickory Park
Specialty items: Garbage burger, sundaes