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Django, Des Moines, Iowa

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Looking at the name of the city, you’d expect Des Moines to have a strong French background. After all, the city’s name literally translates to “of the monks” in French, a connection to the River of the Monks (the Des Moines River) during colonial days, and Des Moines itself was part of the Louisiana Purchase from the French during the Jefferson administration. It’s also one of only a handful of major cities gained in the Purchase to have a French name, and the others (New Orleans, Baton Rouge and St. Louis) certainly have a strong French influence.

But in Des Moines, the French influence, if there is one, really isn’t apparent in any of the visits we’ve made. Don’t get me wrong, Des Moines is a city I quite enjoy, easily my favorite thing about the Hawkeye State that isn’t either Amy or our cat Willy. It’s got a lot of things going for it, including a great sculpture park, a gorgeous state capitol building and some excellent restaurants to boot. But European, it doesn’t appear to be, and French it isn’t, at least from what I’ve seen. Apparently, Des Moines didn’t even have a real French restaurant until the 2000’s…and it took a man of Italian descent to fill that void.

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Wait a minute, what? A chef of Italian descent tackling French cuisine? Well, George Formaro isn’t exactly your typical Italian chef. A lifelong resident of Des Moines, Formaro has never been one to let himself be defined by any one cuisine, which is why his name has become possibly the most respected in the culinary world of Iowa. He’s been part of the Des Moines restaurant scene for nearly two decades now ever since he opened South Union Bakery in 1996 to fill a need for freshly baked Italian-style bread, and through 19 years, he’s held to a simple philosophy: do it right and be creative while doing it.

It’s a philosophy that Des Moines has totally embraced, as evidenced by Formaro’s six restaurants in Des Moines, several of which are among the biggest names in the state capitol. For instance, Zombie Burger, thought by many to be the best burger in the Hawkeye State (at the very least, it’s definitely one of the best) as well as the home of creative shakes, is a Formaro creation. So is Centro, his Italian restaurant that consistently wins top awards. And so is Django, a French restaurant that Formaro opened in 2009 to fill a void downtown next to the Hotel Fort Des Moines that has become the place to go to find some high-quality authentic French meals. Popularity usually means run far away in our part of Iowa, but Des Moines actually has a pretty legitimate restaurant scene and its residents know good taste. That was enough for me and Amy, as we needed a new place to stop on our way to a friend’s wedding in Kansas and decided this would be perfect to experience.

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Being attached to a nice hotel certainly means one mark on the positive side of the ledger, because it sets the mood right from the beginning of the meal. Decor isn’t exactly key to a quality restaurant, but it’s always a nice touch that certainly doesn’t hurt anything. In a place like this, the French are well-known for being high-brow, so the look works perfectly with the atmosphere that Django is trying to establish. When you visit a place that looks like this, you tend to expect quality, and quality is exactly what you get.

For us, that started with something that I was quite familiar with, but Amy had never experienced before: duck-fat fries. Basically, they’re exactly what the name says they are: french-fried potatoes cooked in duck fat instead of oil. If you’ve never had them before, think french fries with more flavor. Here, they’re called frites instead of fries in keeping with the French theme, but these are definitely the smaller fries that Americans are used to rather than the giant steak frites that originated in Belgium. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because thin fries can work just as well as thick ones.

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These fries certainly do. The duck fat means that the fries don’t even need to be seasoned to be full of flavor, but rather than resting on its laurels, Django offers a nice spectrum of choices by featuring four different dipping sauces available at your disposal. The standard ketchup is of course one for those who just aren’t that adventurous, but if you’re willing to try something new, Django also includes curry ketchup, harissa aioli (second from left to right) and Béarnaise sauce for your pleasure. Curry ketchup is self-explanatory, but harissa aioli is a new experience if you’re not familiar with the Rocky Mountain condiment known as fry sauce. Basically, aioli is a mix of garlic and olive oil with egg yolks, kind of similar to mayonnaise, and harissa is a chili pepper paste, which isn’t like ketchup but is close enough to make this kind of a high-brow version of the ketchup-mayonnaise combination.

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Béarnaise sauce, on the other hand (furthest right), is best described as kind of a lemon butter sauce. Basically, it’s made by emulsifying egg yolks with clarified butter and some herbs and flavors, with vinegar usually involved. Truthfully, this was probably my favorite of the four sauces, as the lemony flavor just worked perfectly with the crispy and flavorful fries. The aioli was also excellent, and Amy and I both very much enjoyed the appetizer. Definitely something that we would get again.

As far as a choice of entree, this menu has a lot of options going for it. I wouldn’t expect to see burgers in a French restaurant, but you can definitely order one here with no worries, considering that Formaro has more than proven that he knows what to do with burgers elsewhere in the city. The sandwiches are definitely a closer fit to a French place, and I debated quite a while about the possibility of getting a Croque Monsieur or Madame (which, much like the Polish Girl, is kind of interesting that the female version is bigger and better than the male version), which would have fit perfectly here. But in the end, my choice came down to between the two most creative sections of Django’s menu: pasta or crepe.

When one thinks high-brow pasta, macaroni probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but Django manages to make the dish that most of us knew as children into something that fits perfectly in a fancy establishment. Consider, for example, the spinach and goat cheese macaroni gratin, which adds Parmesan, tomatoes, fresh thyme and bread crumbs to the spinach and goat cheese. Yeah, we’re not exactly dealing with the stuff out of a box (granted, that does have its place sometimes), these are legitimate culinary creations.

But when it came down to it, I knew that for my first visit to Django, I had to get something French, and that meant a crepe. I’ve only had really good crepes in one other place, and they’re very difficult to find because of how tough it is to make a thin batter and have it hold together on you to allow you to properly fill the crepe. But if any place knows how to master it, a French restaurant would be the place, and so after going through a lengthy process, I finally decided on the mushroom crepes, which feature spinach and goat cheese underneath a red pepper cream sauce. Basically, there’s no part of that description I didn’t like.

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There’s also no part of the crepe itself I didn’t like, because these things are simply incredible. Holy cow, are they awesome. The goat cheese is perfect, providing the signature creaminess, the crepe itself is light and does not overpower anything, the vegetables are done perfectly and oh, man, that sauce. It’s a nice little kick combined with creaminess that really gives this dish its full flavors, and I really wanted more sauce as soon as I finished this, it is that outstanding. Egg-based dishes simply don’t come in quality for this unless it’s breakfast, and even then, the places that are on the level of these crepes are very few and far between. The salad also adds a nice bit of freshness to everything and gives your palate a quick change-up so you’re always ready to have more of the crepe.

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That wasn’t the only thing worth savoring here, because I also had to try some of Django’s Onion Soup Gratinee. Truthfully, it’s a fancy name for French onion soup, but it’s very well deserved. The keys to French onion soup are a flavorful and onion-filled broth, a quality bread component and a good amount of melted cheese on top. Django absolutely delivers, as this hot soup is one of the best I’ve had. The only French onion soup I can think of that might be better is at Bern’s, and that’s pretty elite company here.

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Amy chose to go a different path, opting for one of Django’s daily specials. We came on a Friday, so that meant the special was crab cake sliders, which come with the aioli from the frites as well as lettuce and tomato. They’re filled with great crabmeat and great flavor, and Amy really enjoyed both the sliders and her house Caesar salad, which is exactly what you would expect from a standard Caesar.

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If you’ve still got room following your meal, Django has you covered with a nice cheese tasting menu, which features 13 different cheeses, most of which are imported from Europe and can either be set in a predetermined pairing as to similar styles, or you can pick your own. You can also follow Amy’s lead and get some cafe au lait, which was a lot like what we remembered from New Orleans. No beignets, unfortunately, at least not from what we could see. Django does offer a very extensive dessert menu, but I just didn’t have room. What can I say, I had to make sure I had space for that crepe.

Des Moines probably isn’t going to get national accolades as a foodie paradise, but it’s really an underrated city as far as its restaurant scene goes, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to George Formaro. Whatever the man has touched in the kitchen has turned to gold, and he’s definitely got another hit on his hands with his foray into French cuisine. Maybe the NCAA tournament’s arrival in 2016 will allow Des Moines to get some of the national recognition it deserves for its restaurants, but I certainly won’t mind if it doesn’t. As long as Amy and I are living in Iowa, I’m absolutely fine with Des Moines being my hidden gem as long as it continues to deliver the great food, and Django certainly does. French by name, DSM now has a place that’s worthy of representing French cuisine.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner, unless it’s a Saturday. Django is dinner only on Saturday as it doesn’t open until 4 p.m. that day. Otherwise, Django will always be open by 11 a.m. and close no earlier than 9 p.m.

Wait during my visit: None. Friday lunch isn’t the busiest time to be in Des Moines if you’re a little bit behind the lunch crowd.

Location: Django is at 210 Tenth Street in Des Moines, part of the city’s downtown.

Cost: For a nice place like this, it actually isn’t that bad. The soup and salad can get a bit expensive at roughly six dollars each, but otherwise, appetizers are close to $10 and entrees around $15. Plan on about $20 per person and you should be fine.

Parking: This could be a problem or not too bad. Des Moines has metered parking near Django, and garages are not that far from its location. If you have change, feed the meter, you should only have to pay for about an hour.

Seating arrangement: Tables, chairs and open booths are options, plus a bar.

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Website: Django

Specialty items: Crepes, frites, crab sliders, French onion soup

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Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, Overland Park, Kan./Kansas City, Mo.

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Look at a map of the United States, and it’s not hard to see why Kansas City is world-renowned for its barbecue. Being both in the center of the country and the second-largest metro area in the farm-heavy Midwest (behind only Minneapolis-St. Paul) made Kansas City a logical choice as a center for meat packing and distribution in the era before air travel made it so much easier to get from point A to point B.

With all of the meat both coming in and in their own backyard, it only made sense for Kansas City to develop a signature cuisine based around the meats, leading to Kansas City becoming a mecca for barbecue nationwide. In large part because of the variety of meat available, one of the staples of Kansas City barbecue became the willingness to smoke any and every kind of meat available. Unlike the pork-loving Southeast or brisket-happy Texas, Kansas City has never had one kind of signature meat. Whether it’s pork, beef, ham, turkey, chicken or sausage, the City of Fountains has always put everything in the smoker and doused it in sauce.

The other staple of Kansas City is that legendary barbecue is a longtime family affair. Of the Big Four barbecue restaurants of Kansas City, which include Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, Joe’s Kansas City/Oklahoma Joe’s and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, only Joe’s Kansas City can truly be considered an outsider, having only arrived in Kansas City in the 1990’s and being started by a group of friends rather than one family. Bryant’s got its start in 1946 when the Bryant brothers of Charlie and Arthur went into business together, and Gates came the same year when George Gates started Gates and Sons Bar B Q.

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But in the case of Jack Stack, rather than being a family affair, this seems to be more of a case of family gone wrong. The origins are similar to Bryant’s and Gates, as Russ Fiorella began Smoke Stack Barbecue in 1957 and had his children work in his modest restaurant, keeping with the family affair theme. But the story took its first turn in 1974, when Jack Fiorella, the oldest son, became frustrated with working under his father and pushed for a second Smoke Stack location, allowing him to run his own restaurant and emerge from his father’s shadow.

But five years later, the shadow still loomed, so much so that Jack decided to open a second restaurant that would not bear the Smoke Stack name in an effort to distance himself from his father’s success. In an incredible bit of foreshadowing, he called the restaurant Hatfield and McCoy’s, using the same menu that had worked for Smoke Stack. It didn’t work a second time. In barbecue-crazy Kansas City, both restaurants suffered because there was nothing noteworthy about either place. It was just the same food they could get at Smoke Stack with a new name, which wasn’t good enough. Predictably, Hatfield and McCoy’s didn’t last, closing after less than two years.

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When he returned to Smoke Stack, Jack and his wife, Delores, decided they had learned their lesson, and it was time for a change. Doing things Russ’ way hadn’t worked out, so the husband and wife team decided that they would take risks and do things their way. Gone was the small menu, replaced by an extensive one that included sides made from scratch and nontraditional items such as fish, lamb and shrimp. Gone was the traditional barbecue shack, as Jack and Delores opted for a more upscale feel to their restaurants, providing full service and comfort expected from a higher class than barbecue. Gone were Jack’s cost-cutting practices that sprung from a desire to show that he could succeed on his own. Instead, he focused on providing the best food possible, regardless of the cost.

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All of it worked. This time, Jack’s Smoke Stack location became one of Kansas City’s most popular restaurants, which led to the final twist of the story. In his second attempt at success, Jack had created his own identity so well that his siblings no longer believed his restaurant was even a Smoke Stack location. As a result, when Jack decided he wanted another location for his restaurant in 1997, his siblings informed him that he would no longer be allowed to use the name Smoke Stack for his new restaurant. Much like Joe’s Kansas City, which had the pedigree but not the rights to the original name, Jack’s response was to re-brand both of his restaurants. Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue was born, marking Jack’s final step out of his father’s long shadow and his final break from the family business. Actually, he ended up destroying the family business. While the other Fiorella siblings held to the traditional menu and each eventually saw their Smoke Stack restaurants close, Jack Stack continued to innovate and claimed its place alongside Gates, Bryant’s and Joe’s as one of Kansas City’s most beloved barbecue places. Jack even learned from his own frustrations with his father and created a succession plan to allow for his son and son-in-law to gradually take control of the business and be ready to run it when he stepped aside. Given how his risks turned out, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Jack’s probably not the most popular guy at Fiorella family reunions.

Well, Jack’s original family might have fallen apart over the years, but luckily, mine hasn’t met that fate. If it had, I might not have completed my excursion through the Big Four of Kansas City barbecue, because this was actually a recommendation of my youngest brother Zach. Zach’s wife Krista is originally from Overland Park, Kan., which means Zach has made several trips north recently from Texas to be with her and her family. During that time, he’s developed a taste for Jack Stack Barbecue, and proceeded to inform me that he thinks it’s the best barbecue he’s ever had. As I mentioned, Zach lives in Texas, which certainly does barbecue right, so that’s pretty high praise there, and there’s no way that Amy and I could pass up this chance to find out. After previously getting a recommendation from my cousin in Indiana, it was now time to see what my brother had to offer in the culinary world.

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First things first: this is not your typical barbecue place, as Amy and I confirmed once we walked in. It’s not quite The Drover in terms of atmosphere, but it’s definitely high class. The booths are segmented, the lighting and decorations scream fine dining and they’ve got a strong appetizer menu. Appetizers are not usually a strength at barbecue places, but as we’ve established, daring to be different is what makes Jack Stack what it is. Here, you’ve got two highly recommended options based on reputation and sight: the fried mushrooms and the onion rings. We opted for the fried mushrooms, as both of us are noted mushroom lovers and figured that would be our best bet.

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Boy, was that a stroke of sheer brilliance on our part, because these mushrooms are absolutely amazing. At most places, when you order breaded and fried mushrooms, you receive a basket of small mushrooms, which can sometimes lead to a few mushrooms where the ratio is 90 percent breading, 10 percent mushroom or worse. That’s never a problem at Jack Stack, because they don’t use small mushrooms here. They use full-formed, full-sized mushrooms, which are served on a wooden skewer. Never seen that before here, but it’s actually a great form of presentation.

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It’s also a great sign of high quality, because you can’t skewer a mushroom that doesn’t have a strong interior, or it will fall apart. Here, the mushrooms are large and firm, providing the almost-meat taste and texture that you get from a really good Portabella. Plus, the breading is crispy and flavorful, giving it the right amount of seasoning and texture to complement the mushroom. The third element is also perfect, the sublime horseradish dipping sauce. With horseradish, a little goes a long way, and Jack Stack’s sauce provides a small kick that enhances the mushroom rather than overwhelms it. Really, the mushrooms are pretty much perfect. I can’t think of a single thing I would change here. You get five in a half-order, and that’s the right size for two people. I’m guessing a full order gives you 10, which could be a full meal.

But as far as the meal goes, you’re likely here for some kind of barbecue, and this being Kansas City, that likely involves burnt ends. For those who have never been to the City of Fountains, burnt ends are much more appetizing than their name might suggest. Basically, burnt ends are the tips of the meat being smoked that are sliced off and then thrown back into the smoker so that they can be fully tenderized. That results in the outside crisping up and getting a charred, smoky exterior, while the interior reaches the tender texture that well-smoked meat is known for having.

I love burnt ends, but when it comes to barbecue, I love to get myself some brisket. Luckily, Jack Stack provides the perfect option for people like me, offering the barbecue combo lunch, which allows you to choose two different styles of meats in one meal. With four different kinds of burnt ends (beef, ham, pork and sausage) and five kinds of sliced meats (smoked pork, roasted ham, brisket, polish sausage and smoked turkey), three kinds of ribs (beef, pork and lamb) and a bone-in chicken, that gives you 13 choices at your disposal.

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The combo lunch usually comes with fries, but along with its barbecue, Jack Stack is known for two of its sides: hickory pit beans and cheesy corn bake. The hickory pit beans have actually won acclaim from Bobby Flay and are smoked in Jack Stack’s barbecue pit and loaded with chunks of brisket. Sounds like something special, but I had to go with the corn bake on this occasion. There’s just something about the idea and taste of vegetables au gratin that really works for me. To complete my meal, I went with pork burnt ends, mainly so that Amy could try a few.

Holy cow, was this incredible. First, there’s the burnt ends, which are simply amazing. Burnt ends usually involve brisket, but the pork version is just simply amazing. The meat just melts in your mouth, and the smokiness of the exterior is perfect with the barbecue sauce. The brisket itself is also wonderful, juicy and full of the kind of flavor that comes from smoking meat over hickory firewood. As I know from working for a decade with my father in his firewood business, quality hickory wood produces great barbecue, and Jack Stack’s commitment to quality is definitely evident here. This brisket is simply outstanding.

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But the best thing here was the cheesy corn bake. Jack Stack’s website says that it’s a combination of cream cheese, cheddar, corn and smoked ham, and however they bring that combination together, it’s basically liquid gold. The cheeses melt perfectly, and the smoked ham provides a nice contrast with the creaminess of the cheese and corn combination. This is seriously one of the best side dishes I have ever eaten, and I’d come here for just the corn bake. The only side dishes I can think of that are on this level from a barbecue place are the white cheddar macaroni and cheese at Jethro’s and the sides at Slow’s, and I’d honestly put this ahead of Jethro’s and on par with Slow’s. I never thought any side from a barbecue restaurant could beat those out, but this one does.

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Amy had a hard time making her selection, but eventually, the idea of a barbecue baked potato caught her eye. Amy loves potatoes, and trying one with Kansas City barbecue involved was a combination that she couldn’t resist. However, although the combination works, it wasn’t Amy’s favorite. She was much more enamored with the burnt ends and ended up wishing that she had ordered those instead, preferably with some fries. Unfortunately, the fries were one thing we had to skip on this trip, and that’s a shame because of how good Jack Stack’s French fry seasoning is. We took a bottle back with us, and discovered that it’s incredible on potatoes. As soon as we tried it, Amy and I agreed that on our next trip, one of us is getting the fries. Probably her, because I don’t see myself giving up that corn bake.

That brings me to the major question about the Kansas City barbecue Big Four: how does it compare? Personally, when it comes to just the meat and sauce, I have to give a slight edge to Joe’s Kansas City. There’s just something about that brisket that makes it a little more juicy and a little more flavorful, in my opinion. But when looking at the restaurants as a whole, I have to say that Jack Fiorella had it right when he chose to expand the menu, because the sides and appetizers are what push Jack Stack over the top. As good as Joe’s fries are, I’d choose the corn bake over them, and the mushrooms are an appetizer without an answer.

High-class and creativity might not have been what people first expected from barbecue, but Jack Fiorella has never been one to play by the rules. After all, he played by the rules once, and it nearly bankrupted him. Rewriting the rules and doing things his way has proven a much better strategy, and it’s made an already fantastic barbecue town even better. Clearly, this place has earned its spot in the Big Four, and my brother knows what he’s talking about in the Kansas City culinary world. Good call, Zach, good call.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Jack Stack opens daily at 11 a.m. at all five of its locations and closes no earlier than 9 p.m., which only occurs on Sunday. On all other days, it’s open until at least 10 p.m.

Wait during my visit: None. Overland Park is a good-sized Kansas suburb, but it’s not so large that traffic is always an issue. It could get busy at the right times, but at 11:30 on a Sunday, it’s not going to be bad unless the Kansas City Chiefs are playing.

Location: We visited the location at 9520 Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park, Kan. Other locations exist in Kansas City on the Missouri side and in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Cost: Upscale barbecue doesn’t come cheap. You should plan on about $15-20 a person for lunch and $20-25 a person for dinner. But trust me, it’s most definitely worth every cent.

Parking: Not an issue, Jack Stack features a large parking lot on site and is in a fairly decent-sized shopping and restaurant center.

Seating arrangement: The upscale format means that they want to keep things classy, and that means nice booths and tables.

Website: Jack Stack

Specialty items: Burnt ends, breaded mushrooms, cheesy corn bake

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Stroud’s, Fairway, Kan./Kansas City, Mo.

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When one thinks meat in Kansas City, there’s a good chance that they’re thinking about barbecue. After all, this is a city that not only brings in barbecue lovers from across the country year after year for the World Series of Barbecue, but the local media managed to stage a 64-restaurant bracket competition this March, consisting solely of barbecue restaurants in Kansas City. Put simply, the City of Fountains is well-known for smoking its meat and doing it well.

But there’s more to Kansas City than just barbecue, as there often is in cities known for one famous dish. When everyone else is doing one thing, the easiest way to stand out is to do your own thing and make it the best that you can. Since the 1930’s, while most of Kansas City has elected to focus on pulled pork, ribs and Kansas City strip steak, Stroud’s has opted for poultry, shying away from the smoker in favor of old-fashioned pan-fried chicken at four locations on both sides of State Line Road. Yes, for those who have never been, there really is a road called State Line Road that serves as the dividing line between Missouri and Kansas until you get to the Missouri River. There are also two Kansas Cities, one in each state, known respectively as KCMO (Missouri) and KCK (Kansas). This place can get very confusing very quickly for the out-of-towner.

What isn’t confusing is the chicken at Stroud’s, and oddly enough, that specialty wasn’t a decision that Guy and Helen Stroud reached on their own. In fact, back in the 1930’s, Stroud’s was yet another Kansas City barbecue restaurant, serving mainly beef, not chicken. But in the 1940’s, World War II began, and suddenly, beef was being rationed. Well, that wasn’t going to work if the restaurant was going to stay in business, so the Strouds took advantage of the fact that chicken was not being rationed and began serving pan-fried chicken instead of barbecue. When the war ended, the Kansas City strip returned to the menu, but the brisket never came back. The Strouds had discovered that their chicken was worthy of carrying the menu as their flagship entree, and 70 years later, that hasn’t changed. They’re still choking their own chickens, as their shirts proudly say.

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In fact, it’s only become more entrenched in Kansas City culture. Since embracing its status as the home of pan-fried chicken and changing owners in the 1980’s, Stroud’s has proceeded to win accolades from across the country. The restaurant has shown up on numerous restaurant shows, and esteemed judge and food blogger Simon Majumdar, one of my favorite Food Network personalities, has gone as far as to claim that if he had his choice for his last meal, he’d pick Stroud’s. Considering that he’s got one of the most sophisticated palates in the world, that’s pretty high praise. I also knew it to be warranted, as I’d been here once before in 2011 with my friend Sam Wilson and absolutely loved this chicken. With that being the case and Amy’s love of all things chicken, this was definitely something that she had to try for herself.

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The first thing you notice about Stroud’s is the smell, which isn’t exactly what you would expect from a fried chicken place. Instead of the savory smells of chicken, you get the very recognizable sweet scent of warm cinnamon. There’s a great reason for that, but I’ll get to that later. Instead, the first question is how to start your meal, which depends on how adventurous you’re feeling. If you’re up for the so-called garbage parts of the chicken, the livers are actually quite delicious, fried the same way as the chicken and providing the perfect amount of both meat and skin. I got these on Sam’s advice on my first visit and very much enjoyed them, proving that when it comes to chicken, Stroud’s knows what it’s doing.

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If livers and/or gizzards aren’t your thing, your best bet is to stick with either the soup or salad that comes with any meal here. Personally, I’m a big fan of Stroud’s homemade chicken noodle soup, which is made with wide, thick noodles, just like a good noodle soup should be. Even better, the soup contains big chunks of chicken and the broth is spiced perfectly. I honestly prefer cream-based soups to broth-based soups, but a well-spiced broth can work very well, and this one certainly does. This soup is an absolute must for me.

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Amy, on the other hand, opted for the salad, which is also very well done, with multiple kinds of lettuce, fresh cucumbers and olives and plenty of shredded mozzarella cheese. If not for the quality of the soup, I would highly recommend this salad. It’s very good and a great way to start a meal with a taste of freshness. It’s just the soup is on a really high level, which makes sense given the chicken that has made this place famous.

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Speaking of the chicken…oh, the chicken. First off, Stroud’s doesn’t go light in any sense of the word when it comes to chicken. The smallest chicken meal they have is three pieces, with one being a breast and the other two being whatever you choose that isn’t another breast. For bigger appetites, you can choose to go for a four-piece meal that includes all dark meat, all white meat or one of every major part. There’s also an option for nothing but chicken breasts, which lands you three of them. Second, all of their chicken remains pan-fried, which means that it can take some time to prepare, but the result is well worth it.

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The keys with pan-fried chicken are to make sure that the crust is crispy but not soggy, the breading works with the chicken and that the meat itself remains moist and juicy rather than greasy. That takes time and experience, and that’s why Stroud’s has been doing this for as long as they have. The breading is perfect, nice and crisp without being too greasy or too messy.

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The chicken is perfectly moist and flavorful from first bite to last, and this is honestly probably the second-best chicken that I’ve ever had. The only place I can think of that’s better is Willie Mae’s, and when the only place that can beat you out of the long list of chicken restaurants that I’ve visited is a New Orleans legend, you’re doing something right.

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Stroud’s doesn’t stop there with its chicken, however, because it includes a sizable helping of gravy with every chicken dinner. Trust me, you definitely want their gravy. The gravy is the classic pepper gravy that goes on a good country fried steak, which gives you an idea of what you’re getting with this gravy. Much like the chicken noodle soup, it’s spiced perfectly. The pepper presence is fantastic, and this is also a perfect complement to the mashed potatoes or even the fries, depending on what kind of potato you’ve chosen with your meal. I don’t even really like most gravy, but I absolutely love this stuff and could have it on just about anything. The green beans include chunks of ham, a nice surprise, while the potatoes are again strong and flavorful. Meanwhile, the fries are similar to those of Five Guys, but thicker. Absolutely full of potato and flavor, while served at the perfect temperature and texture. One other thing, if you’re ordering with more than one person, rather than bring out individual portions of their duplicate side items, Stroud’s will fill larger bowls and allow you to take as much as you want. We found that out when we again had a little too much food, but neither of us minded at all. Actually, too much food is kind of how things work here, because Stroud’s will bring side refills if you ask. I don’t know if they charge extra or not (I’m betting no) because I’ve never actually taken them up on that offer.

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But I haven’t even gotten to the best part about Stroud’s yet. If you thought the chicken was the best thing about this place, think again. Remember that cinnamon smell that I mentioned when you walk into Stroud’s? Yeah, there’s a reason for it: Stroud’s homemade cinnamon rolls. Most places serve you bread with your meal, but at Stroud’s, the bread is covered with sweet cinnamon sugar and served warm, creating an absolutely wonderful taste. The sugar melts onto the bread when it’s made, and the bread’s texture is perfect. These are soft and almost seem to melt in your mouth. Stroud’s offers the option to have these rolls either with your meal or for dessert, and even though they’re very sweet, I actually recommend taking them with your meal. These things are so good that you want to be absolutely certain that you have enough room to enjoy every bite. Even a day later in the hotel room when they’re no longer warm, these are awesome, but when they come out hot and fresh, there’s nothing like them. Totally worth the trip on their own.

It’s not quite the best chicken in the world, but it’s pretty darn close, and the generous portions of quality sides more than make this a must-visit on either side of State Line Road. Sometimes, things happen for a reason. I’m sure Stroud’s could have been a very successful barbecue place, but after more than seven decades in the chicken business, I don’t think they’re complaining about how things worked out. Throw in those ridiculously awesome cinnamon rolls, and you’ve got something that’s truly special here.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Make sure you bring an appetite, though, because Stroud’s usually does not offer a lunch portion. I think the Overland Park location might, but Fairway definitely does not.

Wait during my visit: Minimal. We were seated right away, the wait comes when you’re waiting on the chicken to be fried and served to you.

Location: There are four of them in the Kansas City area, two on the Kansas side in Fairway and Overland Park and two in Missouri in Independence and in Kansas City proper. Our location was at 4200 Shawnee Mission Parkway in Fairway.

Cost: Providing a lot of food doesn’t come cheap, so you shouldn’t be surprised that this is on the expensive side. Plan on about $20 per person here. One strategy you can try if you’re not that hungry and can agree on types of chicken you want is to order one dinner and two sets of sides. If you do it that way, it’s $9 for the additional person and you’ll end up at about $30 for two people.

Parking: Not a challenge in Fairway. Finding it can be a chore because of how Shawnee Mission Parkway is set up, but there’s a lot there once you do find it, so no worries.

Seating arrangement: Tables and booths against the windows, chairs elsewhere.

Website: Stroud’s

Specialty items: Pan-fried chicken, chicken noodle soup, cinnamon rolls

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Hickory Park Restaurant Co., Ames, Iowa

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Recap

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.

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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

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Hickory Park on Urbanspoon

Zombie Burger and Drink Lab, Des Moines, Iowa

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I’m not really sure why zombies are so popular in this day and age. I’m not really sure anyone is, but there’s no doubt that the mystery of the undead is quite the phenomenon. Maybe it’s just as simple as people really enjoying a good scare, and there are few things that bring one up like a creature who was previously here, died and now only has a single purpose of feasting on the brains of the living. There are even articles that try to analyze it, and nobody’s come to anything resembling a consensus.

The one thing that is for sure is that zombies are very popular, and it only makes sense for someone to try to cash in on that theme with a restaurant based around it. It doesn’t exactly make sense for that someone to be based in Iowa’s state capital, but then again, Des Moines is also home to Asian-inspired pizza, so it makes about as much sense. Given how some of their restaurants are going with their choices, Des Moines might want to steal Louisville’s slogan of “Keep (City) Weird”.

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But what makes Zombie Burger worth the trip isn’t the decor or the theme. They aren’t minuses by any means, but the reality is that Zombie Burger isn’t a one-trick gimmick restaurant that’s all flash and no substance. No, what makes this place special is the same thing that makes any special restaurant worth visiting: they know what they’re doing when it comes to food. After all, that’s kind of the entire point of a restaurant.

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As you probably gathered from the name, Zombie Burger’s meal of choice is the humble hamburger, which becomes anything but humble once Zombie Burger’s creative chefs get their hands on it. Really, it seems that every burger on the menu has been designed with two things in mind: what are the most interesting ingredients we can use and still have a good burger, and how do we make those flavors meld together to create that perfect taste?

OK, there’s a third thing in mind: what kind of undead themed name can we come up with for this burger? Every burger has some kind of name that brings to mind a zombie invasion, with the menu including options such as the T-Virus (portabella mushrooms and Swiss), Planet Terror (bacon cheeseburger with barbecue sauce and ranch), Raygun (bacon and guacamole with fried jalapenos, Jack and chipotle mayonnaise) and the Dawn of the Dead (bacon, egg, cheese and red onion).

That sampling doesn’t even begin to get into the ridiculousness of the Zombie Burger lineup, as on some burgers, Zombie Burger will even do strange things with the bun. Ever wanted to try a burger made on a breaded mushroom for a bun? The East Village of the Damned does exactly that. How about two grilled cheese sandwiches? It’s called They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara. You can even do deep-fried macaroni and cheese, as my friend and former colleague Doug Green did on a trip here in 2012, going with the Walking Ched. All of these choices are printed on what appears to be a newsletter, but the stories are all about zombie-related things. Don’t worry, the menus are on the other side.

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Basically, it’s not quite The Counter in terms of burger freedom, but you’ve got a lot of room to go crazy here. I didn’t want to go too crazy and go Cutthroat Kitchen on this burger, but I did want something creative. With that in mind, I opted for the Dead Moines, which combines ham, prosciutto, smoked Gouda and truffle mayonnaise, figuring that the combination of salty pork, creamy Gouda and mushroom-inspired mayonnaise would be a winner for sure.

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Yeah, it absolutely is. I’ve got to start with the beef here, which really is as good as it gets. Zombie Burger’s beef is simply amazing. It’s juicy, it’s well-cooked, it’s flavorful, it’s the perfect size, it’s everything that you want a burger to be. There’s a reason Zagat named it Iowa’s best burger, and it’s not because Iowa is the foodie black hole (that’s eastern Iowa, not central). It’s because everything on the burgers is outstanding, and the beef is where it all begins. The heartland is one of the best places to get beef, which makes these burgers fresh and of very high quality as a result. You can get one, two or three beef patties, with different prices charged accordingly. I recommend two, which comes at a good price and is a satisfying amount for most people.

But if you don’t have toppings, you don’t have a quality burger, and that’s where the Dead Moines really continues to shine. The main thing is the Gouda, which melts perfectly on the burger and provides a stark contrast that melds with the ham and the prosciutto, creating a smooth and flavorful bite from first moment to last. The mayonnaise provides extra creaminess, and being infused with truffle oil only multiplies the flavor. Then there’s the ham and prosciutto, which counteract the cheese and condiments with flavor and texture, while somehow not being an overwhelming meat bomb.

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What about Amy, though, who doesn’t eat beef at all and despises beef in all forms except that of The Drover’s steak? Not to worry, as Zombie Burger allows you to swap out the beef patty for chicken, a vegetarian patty or a portabella mushroom as your protein if you want. Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or just plain don’t like beef, Zombie Burger has you covered. And if you hate sandwiches, Zombie Burger still has you covered, offering deep-fried hot dogs as well. Basically, if you want it, they probably have it.

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With that being the case, Amy opted for the Trailer Trash Zombie with a chicken breast, which features cheese curds, ranch, fried pickle, American cheese and chicken-fried bacon. Before this, I’d heard of chicken-fried steak, but never chicken-fried bacon. Then again, considering this is a city that came up with bacon-wrapped tater tots, it actually makes sense, and it’s really good. The ranch works well with the chicken and the bacon, and the cheese adds an excellent touch to the existing flavors. This was an excellent sandwich, and truthfully, even though I love beef, I’d probably get this one with chicken too, because it really works.

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As far as sides, be warned that Zombie Burgers do not come with fries automatically. You’re going to have to order them separately, which makes this a great opportunity to get a creative basket to share with a friend. In addition to the standard fries, Zombie Burger offers chili cheese fries, garlic bacon and blue cheese fries and even honours our friends to the north (see what I did there?) with poutine, which is fries with cheese curds and gravy. We opted for the loaded fry basket, which tops the standard fries with cheddar, cheese sauce, sour cream, bacon and green onions. It was absolutely outstanding, as the flavors worked just like they would on a good baked potato. Just like the burgers, this is high-quality.

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But as good as the burgers and fries are, they’re not even the best thing on the menu here. No, that would be the Drink Lab portion of Zombie Burger, which features an impressive roster of milkshakes. Creativity in the names isn’t pronounced here, with the exception of the Zombie Joe (coffee syrup) and the Zombie Bride Wedding Cake (yellow cake in milkshake form), but what is pronounced is the commitment to quality of ingredients and the taste. I had the since-discontinued apple maple cinnamon shake on my first visit a couple years ago and found it incredible, like a really good apple pie. With it no longer available, it was time for plan B, so I opted for the coconut cream pie shake, hoping for the best.

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What I got was beyond my expectations. The main thing that sets this shake apart is the whipped cream. Zombie Burger actually goes the extra mile here and uses fresh, real whipped cream. The taste is so much better than the kind of whipped cream you get already made. It’s smooth, creamy and the perfect addition to the vanilla and coconut flavors taking place in the glass. The coconut is pronounced throughout, and the texture gives off the impression of pie crust, even though this is a straight milkshake rather than a pie shake. This honestly tastes like a really awesome coconut cream pie. It’s absolutely incredible.

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Amy opted for a cereal milkshake, going with the Fruity Pebbles. Yes, it’s exactly like it sounds, a milkshake with Fruity Pebbles mixed in throughout. I’m not a fan of the cereal at all, but the shake is actually really good. It looks pretty psychedelic with all those colors, but it really works. If you’re the kind who likes something extra in your milkshakes and you’re over 21, Zombie Burger has you covered there too. For an additional $3, any milkshake on Zombie Burger’s menu can be made into an alcoholic shake.

I don’t know about the popularity of zombies themselves, but the popularity of Zombie Burger is a pretty easy explanation. The theme might be weird and the names are creative, but that alone is not enough to keep people coming. What makes Zombie Burger so beloved is simple: there isn’t a bad thing on the menu. When creativity meets quality, you’ve got a certain recipe for success…undead or alive.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch, dinner or late night. Zombie Burger is open until midnight on Sunday through Thursday and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Wait during my visit: Extensive. This used to be a small restaurant that had some downtime occasionally. Those days are gone. We waited 45 minutes to get a table, while the take-out portion was just as busy. Like Blue’s Egg, Zombie Burger uses a text messaging system to let you know when your table is ready.

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Location: Zombie Burger is at 300 East Grand Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa.

Cost: Expect to pay a good amount, because although the burgers are reasonable, you need to get a milkshake here. Most burgers are between six and 10 dollars, while shakes go for five apiece with no alcohol. Trust me, worth every cent. Plan on about $15 a person.

Parking: Hope and pray. While Des Moines has garages, none of them are over here. You’re dealing with street parking, and that’s no guarantee at all. The good news is on Saturday and Sunday, street parking is free in Des Moines.

Seating arrangement: It’s a typical setting of tables, chairs and a bar. We were seated at the bar and had no issues with our stools.

Website: Zombie Burger and Drink Lab

Specialty items: Burgers and milkshakes

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Zombie Burger + Drink Lab on Urbanspoon

Fong’s Pizza, Des Moines, Iowa

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There’s a lot to be said for history in the restaurant business, but the reality is that it’s not always enough for a restaurant to survive. Des Moines found that out the hard way in 2008, when King Ying Low, the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city at 100 years in business, shut its doors at its location on Fourth Street in the center of the city. Although beloved institutions can close for a number of reasons, such as when Obrycki’s shut its main location because the owners had grown weary of harvesting crabs and wanted to spend more time with family, that didn’t appear to be the case with King Ying Low. A 2005 piece in the Des Moines Register gave King Ying Low a C, noting that the history scored it points, but better Asian food could be found elsewhere. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, and it’s particularly devastating toward the quality of the food. To steal a line from Brent Musburger, when the local press turns its guns on you, you’re finished.

However, although King Ying Low was indeed finished, that’s not the end of its story. Into the space on Fourth Street stepped a new restaurant and new owners in 2009, and this is where the story gets interesting. According to their website, the new owners, Dennis Epps and Gwen Page, initially came up with the concept of selling pizza at a tiki bar, complete with drinks. Upon looking at the space they had inherited and the Asian decorations left over from King Ying Low, though the new owners decided that they wanted to maintain the Asian theme that their predecessors had left behind and take it in their own direction. Fong’s Pizza had arrived in Des Moines.

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Yes, that direction meant a fusion of Asian and Italian in Iowa, of all places. Granted, I’ve seen Chinese and Mexican work with fantastic results before, but that was in Arizona, which is well-known for Mexican food. Japanese and Mexican has also worked well, but that’s Louisville, which prides itself on being weird. Iowa, while known as a producer of great food, isn’t exactly well-known for its Italian food and isn’t known for bucking tradition in a good way, with Ames’ pizza scene being a notable exception.

Somehow, the combination worked to perfection. Actually, it worked so well that when Fong’s had to close for two months after its basement flooded, normally a death sentence for a young restaurant, it came back stronger than ever, spurred on by loyal fans who loved the unique concept. Most of that loyalty comes from the fact that Epps and Page did their homework once they had their plan figured out. One of the basic parts of California Pizza Kitchen’s business model is that if it sounds like it will taste good on a pizza, you have a 99% chance of being right, and Fong’s Pizza seems to have followed the same idea, searching out Asian restaurants before it opened to determine what dishes could translate well to the pizza pan.

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The answer seems to be that if Fong’s can imagine it, it’s fair game, as the restaurant serves up 32 specialty pizzas, at least eight of which have Asian influences. Ever wanted to know what kung pao chicken would taste like with cheese and pizza dough? You can easily find out. Beef, broccoli and mushroom stir-fry? That’s on a pizza. Moo Shu pork with hoisin sauce? As simple as placing your order. It’s your favorite Chinese takeout place on a pie, with the proper sauces taking the place of the traditional tomato sauce. Pretty cool.

What about those who aren’t in the mood for Asian pizza? Fong’s has them covered too, and again, it’s not in the traditional sense. Once it had the Asian flavors mastered, Fong’s opted to turn other great dishes into pizzas. How about a baked potato pizza, topped with beef, bacon and cheese and served with sour cream? Or perhaps you’d prefer a bacon cheeseburger on a pizza? What about a vegetarian black bean taco? Or a Mediterranean pizza with chicken, spinach and feta? They’re all specialty pizzas on the menu. There’s even a honey and garlic pizza, which is a little strange, but probably works pretty well itself. All of them come on either thin crust or hand-tossed, and there’s a create-your-own menu that features some more familiar toppings if their creativity is a little too far for you. Basically, you’re only limited by their imagination, which stretches quite a ways.

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The imagination even stretches to the appetizers, which take what you’d expect to find in a traditional pizza place and gives them some Asian flair. Pizza rolls, for example, are seemingly pretty straightforward. Fong’s, of course, tosses them in an egg roll wrapper to serve them. Mozzarella sticks, normally breaded and fried? Not here. The breading’s replaced by, you guessed it, an egg roll wrapper, before it fries. Chicken strips are also available, tossed in one of three Asian sauces. Clearly, Fong’s takes its homage to its Asian predecessor very seriously.

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With that being the case, Amy decided to really test the Asian influences right off the bat here. She loves both egg rolls and crab rangoons, and egg rolls with sweet chili sauce were perfect in her eyes. They were every bit as good as advertised, with the pork and chicken working beautifully with the sweet chili sauce and the vegetables add great texture. These egg rolls are good enough that you’d expect to find them in a traditional Chinese restaurant, and to find them in a fusion restaurant speaks to just how much Fong’s cares about honoring the Asian roots of its location.

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With Fong’s having passed the Asian test, it was time to see just how good the fusion part of it was, and Amy knew exactly what she wanted to experience. Remember how I said she loves egg rolls and crab rangoons? Well, the reason she didn’t order the rangoons was because Fong’s specialty pizza is the Crab Rangoon pizza, which they initially weren’t even going to add to their menu because even Epps and Page thought it was too much of a stretch to sell. But like everything else in this crazy story, things went the exact opposite of what might be expected, and the Crab Rangoon pizza is not only their top-selling pizza, but it was also named Iowa’s best pizza by Food Network Magazine (as opposed to Zagat). That’s a pretty strong endorsement, and that meant we absolutely had to give this combination a try.

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It certainly lives up to the hype. The crab rangoon seasoning is spot-on, and the surimi (imitation crab) meshes perfectly with the seasoning to re-create the taste. Fong’s adds on egg roll strips to stand in for the fried wonton wrapper, and the sweet chili sauce provides the flavor of dipping sauce that Amy loves so much. Throw in two cheeses to remind you that yes, this is still a pizza, and you have an excellent taste that’s well worthy of recognition.

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Of course, we couldn’t make a trip to a place like this and make this the only pizza that we sampled. No. 2 was one of my choices, and I decided that I couldn’t come to a pizza place, even one as creative as this, and not get something with mushrooms. After all, mushrooms are often used in American Chinese cooking, so it’s not like they’d be out of place here on a specialty pizza. What caught my eye was the Happy Family, featuring two kinds of chicken, surimi and shrimp, along with mushrooms and green pepper. Really, there’s no part of that sentence that I didn’t like.

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There’s a good reason for it. This is a great marriage of meat, flavor and texture, as the shrimp is really the star of this pizza. Fong’s covers this pizza in the delectable sea creatures, then adds a crunch from the green peppers and balances the taste with the mushrooms and chicken. Seafood on a pizza isn’t something that you find very often, but when it’s done right, it makes you wonder why it’s not done more often. There are probably a few too many peppers, which can make eating this pizza a bit unwieldy without a fork, but when that’s the worst thing about a dish, that’s a good thing.

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Fong’s also has another nice feature for those who are inclined to partake in alcohol: the tiki bar concept from the beginning became one of Fong’s signatures, with 16 different mixed drinks available, most of which are served in signature mugs. There isn’t a lot of space available as a result, but that’s an acceptable sacrifice when that kind of feature exists.

That’s really a perfect example of what has made Fong’s what it is: something that started with a certain vision and adapted it as necessary to fit its surroundings. Des Moines might have lost its oldest Chinese restaurant, but in its place, Fong’s has more than made up for King Ying Low’s absence and become something truly unique. Asian on a pizza isn’t anyone’s first thought, but against all odds, it certainly works. I wish Davenport could figure out pizza like this.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch, dinner or late night. Fong’s opens at 11 a.m. and takes orders until midnight. If you’re hungry afterward, Fong’s will still sell some pizzas by the slice until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. One thing to note: Fong’s does not take call-in orders, so don’t bother.

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Wait during my visit: Extensive. Fong’s is not very big, and it’s very popular, which means waits can get incredibly long. We were waiting about 45 minutes for a table on our visit. One nice thing that Fong’s does is if you do have to wait, they’ll give you a card to get a discounted drink or a free soda at one of the bars in downtown Des Moines. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can use this card at Fong’s. It’s a discount for other businesses only, not their own. Weird, but oh well.

Location: Fong’s is at 223 Fourth Street in Des Moines, Iowa.

Cost: Not too bad, as most pizzas will cost about $11 for a 10-inch pie and $18 for a 16-inch. Either get two 10’s or a 16, and you’ll easily come in under $30, unless you want to add an appetizer or tiki beverage.

Parking: That won’t be easy, as Des Moines has a lot of restaurants and bars in this area and not a lot of spaces nearby. You’re likely going to have to go to a garage that’s a five to 10-minute walk and pay a couple dollars.

Seating arrangement: Booths, tables and chairs. One thing to note: the restroom is VERY small. I’m average build, and it felt like a sardine can for me. Be careful.

Website: Fong’s Pizza

Specialty items: Asian pizzas

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Fong's Pizza on Urbanspoon

The Drover, Omaha, Neb.

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When most people think of the Midwest, chances are that they think of wide open spaces, farmland and a lot of crops and cattle. And why wouldn’t they? After all, cattle drives are one of the main things that built the Midwest in the early days of this country, and even today, eight of the 10 biggest cattle-producing states as determined by the USDA can be classified as being in the Midwest, with California and Montana being the lone exceptions. Combined, those eight states are responsible for 47.5 percent of the cattle produced in the United States this year. Clearly, this part of the country knows what it’s doing with beef.

Nowhere is that more true than in Nebraska. Sure, Texas is the top producer of cattle in this country at 10.9 million this year (and has a very well-earned reputation as a home to some pretty awesome brisket), which is close to double the output of No. 2 Nebraska, but the Lone Star State is also the second-most populated state in the nation at 26.45 million, behind only California. Nebraska, on the other hand, has a population of 1.87 million, with a full third of the Cornhusker State’s residents clustered into Nebraska’s only two real cities of Omaha and Lincoln. Nebraska’s 2014 cattle output clocked in at 6.15 million, and those of you who can do math have realized that yes, that means there are more than three times as many cows in Nebraska as there are people.

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With that being the case, that means two other things are true. First, Nebraskans know their beef. After all, Omaha steaks are famous across the country, and people can and do pay good money to have genuine Omaha steaks mailed to them so they can experience the high-quality beef in the comfort of their own home. Second, considering that in addition to being a hub of the beef industry, Omaha is also home to the College World Series, which means lots of tourists every year descend on Nebraska’s largest city in hopes of seeing their team capture a national title. Of course, that equation can only have one result: legendary steakhouse.

This is one area where the Gateway to the West certainly delivers. Located in the western part of Omaha on 73rd Street, The Drover can be a bit difficult to actually find and enter, but doing so is worth the challenge, and most Omaha residents seem to agree, considering that it’s been open for four decades now. First, there’s actually finding The Drover, which can be a bit tricky because it’s not on a major road. Instead, it’s on a parallel street to 72nd Street, and in order to find it, you’ll have to turn onto Cedar Street and let that become 73rd Street. Once you’ve gotten to that point, it’s easy to follow the giant sign, but your task isn’t quite over once you’ve found the place.

That’s because unlike most places, there is no specific entry point at The Drover. When you walk in, don’t expect a greeter at the door waiting for you to assign you to a table, because you’re not going to find one. Instead, the host will be walking around the restaurant, interacting with customers and keeping track of the tables throughout each specific part of the restaurant with a pad and paper. It’s actually kind of cool that The Drover does it this way, because it means that the host is a part of the operation, rather than being totally separated from the rest of the staff.

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The only separation you’ll find at The Drover is between dining rooms. Much like Bern’s, The Drover creates different segments inside its restaurant rather than throwing all of its customers in one main area. Unlike Bern’s, however, the noise isn’t there. The dining segments are actually smaller at The Drover than they are at Bern’s, but the noise doesn’t bounce around at all. I don’t know if it’s because the building is designed to suffocate the noise or because The Drover does a better job of segmentation, but whatever it is, the atmosphere is perfect here. Low lights and a lack of bouncing noise means you can enjoy your meal without disturbing the people next to you, regardless of party size.

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Once your party’s seated, that’s when The Drover’s experience begins. It starts from the moment the server introduces the menu, because The Drover’s servers go out of their way to make customers feel like they’re in on a secret when they’re highlighting their specials. Specifically, they’re talking about The Drover’s secret-but-not-secret bacon-wrapped shrimp. The bacon-wrapped shrimp are The Drover’s most popular appetizer, but as the servers are quick to point out, it’s not on the menu, even though it’s offered every night.

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There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just to be faux-secretive. The shrimp aren’t on the menu because The Drover only makes so many of them every day, and once they’re gone for the day, there won’t be any more until the next day. That’s because the shrimp used at The Drover don’t have a long shelf life, so the restaurant only wants to make as many as they can actually sell in a given day. That’s a very high commitment to quality, and even without knowing at the time just how high that commitment is, Amy and I decided that these were definitely worth experiencing for ourselves.

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It’s a good thing that The Drover isn’t keeping these a secret, because these things are too good to keep hidden. The shrimp are served with a citrus-horseradish sauce and a side of sauteed mushrooms, and they’re outstanding together or individually. The bacon is crisp and works very well with the shrimp, being wrapped so perfectly that there’s no part where the shrimp isn’t covered before you bite into it. The sauce adds a new element of creamy flavor and the mushrooms are simply amazing. They’re the small caps of mushrooms that you’d expect to find in a quality steakhouse, and the taste is fantastic. I’m not the kind of person who pays extra for mushrooms on my steak (even though I love mushrooms), but I have to say that these mushrooms would be worth the extra cost. They seem like they’d taste fantastic paired with beef, and they were definitely fantastic paired with shrimp and bacon.

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Up next is The Drover’s salad, and this is about as strong a salad as you’re going to find in a steakhouse, because you are in control of the salad here. All Drover entrees come with one trip to the salad bar, where you’re given a chilled plate and the ability to create your own salad, with some very fresh vegetables at your disposal. Lettuce, cherry tomatoes, black olives, mushrooms, egg, cucumber, green pepper, Parmesan cheese, croutons and ranch dressing were my selections, and the result was one fresh and delicious salad. The Drover offers just the salad bar for those who don’t want a full meal, and at $8, it actually isn’t that bad of a price with how fresh everything is.

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As we were enjoying our night, Amy opted for a glass of white wine to go with our shrimp, salad and bread, which brought in…another Drover employee, making our third one that we’d had come to our table after the host and our main server. This is where I’ll pause to discuss The Drover’s unique, efficient serving system. Along with your main server, The Drover has one employee dedicated only to drinks, going around to all the tables in case anyone wants something other than water. I’d never seen this before, but it makes a lot of sense, because by taking the drinks away from the main server, it allows him to focus completely on the food. But The Drover’s system doesn’t stop there. Another employee is dedicated to clearing the tables, and yet another handles your bill when it’s time to call it a night. Yes, you’ll interact with a staff of five by the time you’re done, but the result is faster and focused service, because each member of the team plays their part and handles their responsibility. This is true teamwork at its finest, and the result is that after you place your order, you might not even notice your server again for the rest of the night because he or she will be catering to your needs without you even having to ask. Pretty awesome.

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But the main reason to visit The Drover isn’t the service, the shrimp or the salad. It’s the thing that Omaha has made famous, the steak. Specifically, it’s the whiskey-soaked steak. Prior to going on the grill, each steak can be soaked for 15 minutes in a special whiskey marinade. I’ve had a drunken steak before, but this goes to a new level by dousing the steak before it hits the grill, allowing it to really soak into the steak and really get the flavors acquainted with the meat. Though I’ve never tasted alcohol of any kind, I knew that a drunk steak in Omaha was something I had to experience and opted for the whiskey-soaked top sirloin.

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This thing is incredible. Not only do the flavors of the whiskey work their way into the steak, but the added liquid makes the steak extra tender and extra juicy, to the point where your plate might end up covered in liquid. The only place I’ve ever had a steak as good as this one is Bern’s, and that’s really saying something. The flavor is spread perfectly throughout the steak, creating an outstanding taste from first bite to last. The steak is actually so juicy and flavorful that there is no sauce whatsoever needed. Its own juices are flavor enough.

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Even Amy was willing to try this one…and didn’t hate it, which is a huge step for her given her hatred of all things beef. Throw in a large baked potato with butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon and chives, and you’ve got one heck of an experience. It’s been a while since I’ve had anything even close to this good with an atmosphere this incredible. Every bit was simply outstanding.

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Amy might not have hated the drunken sirloin, but that didn’t mean she was going to actually order one as her meal. Instead, she opted for The Drover’s broiled salmon, which comes complete with the baked potato and tartar sauce. Omaha isn’t known for fish, and Amy had never seen an order of salmon come out with tartar sauce before, but this one worked perfectly. The salmon is so tender and seems to just melt in your mouth, always a good sign of something that’s perfectly cooked. I tried a bit of this and absolutely loved it, and Amy said it worked very well with her wine, enjoying every bite of her meal.

When we first sat down at The Drover, I thought for a minute that Amy and I were about to experience the Nebraska version of Bern’s. But after getting the full experience, I can say that’s not the case. Everything about both places are first class, but where Bern’s is glamour and elegance, The Drover is a relaxed ambience while keeping it classy at the same time. To call The Drover a version of anything else would be improper and unfair. After 40 years serving some of the best steaks in the nation from a well-oiled machine that is its wait staff, it’s clear that The Drover is an absolute gem and a real legend in its own right. A visit to Omaha just isn’t complete without stepping inside the ivy-covered walls of The Drover.

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Recap

Time to go: Dinner, which begins after 5 p.m. The Drover does serve lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. before taking the next three hours off, but you’re really here for a dinner you’ll really enjoy.

Wait during my visit: Minimal. We had a reservation, but they’re not necessarily required here. It’s probably better to go ahead and call ahead, though, just to be safe.

Location: The Drover is located at 2121 South 73rd Street in Omaha, Neb.

Cost: Good steakhouses are not cheap places, and The Drover is no exception. The cheapest steak on the menu checks in at $22, and the chicken and fish entrees are not much cheaper. Plus, the bacon-wrapped shrimp come in at $13, no small price for an appetizer. Given the high-quality of service here, if you don’t go for alcohol, you’re probably looking at about $75 for two people after tip. But as with most places like this, it’s very much worth the money.

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Parking: When you get to The Drover, you might see a bunch of cars lined up outside the restaurant parked on 73rd Street. Don’t fall for it. The situation seems hairy because The Drover is right by a hospital and most of the parking spaces belong to the hospital, but the small lot next to The Drover is not connected to the hospital and is perfect for customers. Despite several cars on the street, we had our pick of several parking spaces. One word of warning, though: as the lots are not connected, do not turn into the second lot thinking you can park there during your meal. You can’t. That’s hospital property, and you do run the risk of being ticketed or towed in that lot. Just be sure that your car’s lot connects to The Drover.

Seating arrangement: The restaurant features tables of four and breaks itself into segments to give diners privacy and atmosphere throughout the evening.

Website: The Drover

Specialty items: Whiskey-soaked steak, bacon-wrapped shrimp

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The Drover on Urbanspoon