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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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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

High Life Lounge, Des Moines, Iowa

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Truthfully, it’s almost inexcusable that it’s taken me this long to write about the High Life Lounge, considering that my first trip there came long before I had ever thought of Dan vs. Food. Actually, this was my first act upon moving to Iowa from Idaho back in 2011. As I made the trek from Pocatello to Davenport, I knew that I wanted to hit as many top restaurants along the route as possible, which eventually led me to Interstate 80, Des Moines and the High Life Lounge in Iowa’s capital city.

But despite getting my first introduction to the High Life Lounge three years ago, it wasn’t one of the main places on my list to write about when I started this blog. It wasn’t because the High Life Lounge had disappointed me in any way. Actually, I loved everything about it. The reason for the delay is also the best thing to have ever happened to me: Amy.

By the time I was ready to write about the High Life Lounge, Amy had already made her move to join me in Iowa and realized that she loved being with me for every restaurant experience. With that being the case, I realized that it would make no sense for me to write about this place before she had the chance to try it for herself. When her mom joined us for a weekend trip to Des Moines in May, I knew it was the perfect time to share one of my favorite places in Iowa with both of them.

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For those who have seen any kind of sporting event’s commercials, that might be quite surprising that a bar named after a beer is one of my favorite restaurants, considering that I don’t drink. In fact, beer is a very big thing at this place, and Miller products are the main show in that department. According to the High Life Lounge’s numbers, Miller High Life outsells the next most popular beer by two-to-one there. Clearly, they take their beer seriously here.

But luckily for me, it isn’t all about the booze. A visit to the High Life Lounge feels like someone placed a sports bar in a basement. The atmosphere is reminiscent of some of the dens I watched football games in growing up, which extends to the walls, carpeting and décor. You’re not going to find high-brow art or fancy designs in this place, and that’s totally fine. That’s not what a lounge is supposed to be in any circumstances. A lounge is about relaxing and having a good time, and that’s what the High Life Lounge’s focus is all about.

Well, that and making sure you have a good meal, and having a good meal starts with a very unique atmosphere: bacon-wrapped tater tots. When I said that to Amy before we made our trip west, her eyes immediately lit up. Bacon and potatoes are among her favorites, and with cheese involved and jalapeno slices tucked under the bacon, she was ridiculously excited to try them. Throw in ranch sauce, another of her favorites, and this appetizer was seemingly made for her.

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These things were fantastic. Each tater tot is wrapped with a slice of bacon and adds a pickled jalapeno slice before entering the deep fryer, then stabbed with a toothpick before getting covered in cheddar and jack cheeses, resulting in a flavorful experience with a crunch that cannot be the least bit healthy for you. Throw in the creamy ranch dressing, and the taste and calorie level both go up another notch. Thank goodness they only give you a few of these things, because eating too many would be pretty catastrophic to one’s health, but they’re so delicious.

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However, the High Life doesn’t have to mean high calorie, and their other specialty on the menu proves it. I speak, of course, of the High Life Lounge’s broasted chicken, which is basically a far healthier way to get the taste and texture of fried chicken. While the name seems like it would be a combination of broiling and roasting the meat, it actually refers to cooking the chicken in a pressure fryer.

If you’ve ever used a pressure cooker, a pressure fryer is basically the same concept using oil instead of water and locking in the liquid during the cooking process. The meat is submerged in the oil and then covered and locked to seal in all of the pressure and use that to quickly cook. That has two benefits, and the first one should be apparent to any pressure cooker user: it’s going to cut the cooking time quite a bit. Waiting a half-hour for fried chicken doesn’t happen here, because the chicken can cook in less than half of that time.

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The other benefit is that using pressure to get the heat actually makes for a healthier chicken, because the pressure fryer seals off the oil from penetrating through the skin of the chicken. What this means is that only the outside gets fried, resulting in that crispy breading that is synonymous with fried chicken. The inside, however, remains untouched by the oil, allowing it to retain its juices while heating up, ensuring that the meat comes out moist and tender without the oily taste some fried chicken has.

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The result is some of the most delicious and juicy chicken you will ever have. The meat isn’t the least bit greasy, coming out with a texture that you would expect to find on a grilled chicken breast. On many pieces of fried chicken, once you get past the skin and get toward the bone, you’re left with small pieces of meat that are covered in grease and difficult to obtain. Not so with broasted chicken. Here, the chicken pulls out in large chunks and the meat is visible and comes off easily. What’s more, the chicken doesn’t feel the least bit greasy to the touch, so you don’t have to worry about wiping off your hands every few minutes and burning through a stack of napkins.

But none of that would matter without the chicken being delicious as well, and the High Life Lounge delivers in that area as well. The breading is exactly what breading should be, adding to the meat without overpowering it. It’s perfectly seasoned, and provides a perfect complement to the white or dark meat of the chicken. Every bite is juicy, and it doesn’t feel the least bit heavy. All you get is taste-filled, moist chicken, which is exactly what a good chicken dish is supposed to be.

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Sides include everything you would expect with fried chicken, which is to say corn, potatoes, beans, macaroni and cheese, slaw and potato salad, and you get your choice of two along with the chicken, plus a roll. The roll might be the most underrated part of this meal, as it is really good and comes out hot and fresh. About the only side I’ve had that I can’t recommend would be the mashed potatoes and gravy, as mine didn’t come out nearly as hot as it should have. Stick to the fries or tater tots if you want some potatoes with your chicken. I highly recommend the beans, fries and mac and cheese, however.

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When the temperature of one of the sides is the worst thing about a place, however, you’ve got something that’s pretty special. Honestly, this place is worth coming to for just the chicken. I’ve now been to the High Life Lounge three times, and even though it has a pretty diverse menu, which includes a $3.95 cheeseburger basket and fried dill pickle spears, I highly doubt I’m ever going to find out how good the rest of it is. After all, when you have broasted chicken, rolls and bacon-wrapped tater tots, is there anything else that you really need?

Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. The High Life Lounge stays open until 2 a.m. every night. I’m pretty sure the kitchen closes before then, but that’s how long it’s open.

Wait during my visit: None. This place will get crowded, especially during Iowa Cubs games (it’s right by their stadium), but it’s usually not too bad finding a table.

Location: The High Life Lounge is at 200 Southwest Second Street in Des Moines, Iowa.

Cost: This is the other nice thing about broasted chicken: it’s surprisingly inexpensive. The only way you’re going to top $8 for a two-piece meal with sides and roll is if you go breast and breast. As always, dark meat is cheaper than white meat. I have no idea why, but I’m not complaining, because I prefer dark meat.

Parking: You won’t get near the restaurant, most likely. Instead, find a garage near the location and park there. Be warned that garages, although plentiful in Des Moines, often times only have one entrance. This can be a bit problematic, actually, because several of the streets near the High Life Lounge are one-way. It’s a short walk from the garages to the High Life Lounge once you have parked, though.

Seating arrangement: Booths and tables

Website: High Life Lounge

Specialty items: Bacon-wrapped tator tots, broasted chicken

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High Life Lounge on Urbanspoon

Emil’s Hideaway, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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If there ever was a restaurant that really lived up to its name, this would be the one. Emil’s Hideaway, located in the northern part of Cedar Rapids, is right off one of the main roads in the city, but no driver would ever be able to spot it. That’s because it’s literally tucked away behind a Taco John’s, with all of its signs blocked by the Mexican fast-food chain’s building. Even on its website, it says that you’ll need directions to find it. It’s the kind of place you would never know is there unless you’re actively looking for it, and even then, there’s still a better than average chance that you’re going to miss it entirely. There’s no doubt, this place is definitely a true hideaway.

And as with most hidden spots, this one is a true gem that’s worth the effort to find. Emil’s Hideaway stems from the original Emil’s Deli, which has been a Cedar Rapids institution for a half-century. When a restaurant has been around for that long, there’s usually a pretty good reason for it, and in this case, the reasons are environment and quality.

First, there’s the environment. This place is incredibly relaxed, even when you’re waiting for a table. The booths are comfortable, the art on the walls provides a welcoming atmosphere and the tables have small trees of light that give off the feeling of privacy while keeping the relaxed vibe of it being a place to watch a game or hang out with friends. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, and Emil’s pulls it off well.

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When your goal is to be a top restaurant, though, all of the atmosphere in the world won’t mean a thing unless you’ve got the food quality to go along with it. Luckily, Emil’s is even stronger in this area, and it starts with their array of appetizers, which include beer-battered cheese sticks, onion strings with homemade ranch sauce and stuffed mushrooms topped with a five-cheese blend, all of which sound incredible.

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But as you might have guessed, Amy and I opted for something completely unique, starting our meal with the chicken rangoons. Amy is a huge fan of crab rangoons, and the combination of chicken, cheese, onions and spices inside the fried shell was something different that appealed to both of us. It was definitely the right call, as these things had the perfect texture while providing a nice kick without being overwhelming. I’ve made clear my feelings on spicy foods, but I enjoy a good kick when it doesn’t dominate the flavors, and this was exactly the case here with a mild but noticeable spice that worked perfectly with the chicken and cream cheese. Amy, of course, was quite happy with the heat, and we enjoyed every bit of this start to our evening.

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With the rangoons out of the way, it was time for our actual meal to begin, and at Emil’s, that usually involved a blend of cheeses known as apple jack. Apple jack cheese gives the impression of being Monterey Jack cheese smoked over apple wood, but that’s actually not the case at all. Instead, apple jack cheese takes its name from the Apple River Dairy in Apple River, Ill., and has nothing to do with apple wood or smokiness. The cheese is actually a mixture of Swiss and Monterey Jack, which means a large amount of mild taste and creamy texture.

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I’d never heard of apple jack cheese before this night, so I wanted to get something that included it, which meant sampling one of Emil’s multitude of sandwiches. I’m also a big fan of both sourdough bread and the truly unique, so the Shrimp Bacon Club definitely caught my eye. As you might expect, the Shrimp Bacon Club replaces the traditional ham and turkey with jumbo shrimp, creating a completely different taste from any club I’d ever had. But at the same time, I was curious to see what Emil’s original Club sandwich was like and compare it to the seafood-inspired take on the classic sandwich.

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The solution? Of course, Amy, who was also intrigued by both items, had the perfect plan: order both sandwiches and each of us have half of each one. I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood. Along with our sandwiches, we decided to add garlic mashed potatoes, fries and some of the homemade ranch dressing for dipping. Yes, we like ranch sauce to dip our fries. We also like fry sauce and even straight mayonnaise for them (and will create fry sauce at pretty much every opportunity), but homemade ranch could not be ignored.

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Both sandwiches were nothing short of fantastic. The shrimp is seared to perfection and works beautifully with the bacon, and the ham and turkey on the regular club is prepared about as well as any deli meat I’ve had in quite a while. Emil’s uses quality ingredients wherever possible in all of their items, and it’s obvious with whatever you try on this menu that attention to detail is very high on the priority list.

That brings me back to the apple jack cheese, which is smooth and melted on the sandwich while complementing the other flavors rather than dominating them. I love cheese, but it’s really remarkably easy to get cheese wrong in a dish. If the cheese hasn’t melted on a hot sandwich or dish, you’ve done something wrong. If the cheese is the only thing that you can taste in the meal and the other flavors can’t come through, it means you’ve used too much cheese and you’ve overwhelmed the dish, which is never a good thing no matter how much you love cheese. That isn’t the case with the apple jack cheese. It’s exactly the way that cheese on a hot sandwich should be.

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The garlic mashed potatoes were just as excellent, as were the fries dipped in the homemade ranch sauce. What’s more, the portions can get pretty large at Emil’s. Although we’d had several hours in between meals, Amy was only able to finish the club half of the sandwich halves in front of her, and although she loved it (as well as everything that she’d consumed at Emil’s), she was disappointed that she hadn’t had enough room to enjoy both sandwiches.

That’s the lesson that comes here if you’re able to find Emil’s: you want to make sure that you’ve got enough room to try a variety of items, because there’s quality all over the menu here. I’d say it’s a shame that it’s so well hidden, but it honestly isn’t because despite its location, Emil’s is a well-known spot in the City of Five Seasons that fills up pretty quickly. This place is so good that even when drivers can’t find it from a main road, it still gets attention and a reputation for providing some of the city’s best meals. That’s about as high praise as a restaurant can hope to get.

Recap

Time to go: Lunch, dinner or late night. Don’t go on Sunday, they’re closed on Sundays, but every other day sees the Hideaway stay open until 2 a.m.

Wait during my visit: Lengthy, but this was probably because Iowa’s men’s basketball team was on television against Illinois when we showed up. As Cedar Rapids is only 20 miles north of Iowa City, it’s got a fairly large Hawkeye contingent, and a lot of Iowa fans will likely show up at Emil’s when the Hawkeyes are on television. If Iowa or Iowa State is playing, plan on waiting for a table.

Location: Emil’s is located at 222 Glenbrook Drive Southeast, which is directly off of First Avenue but hidden behind Taco John’s from your viewpoint on First Avenue. If you have trouble finding it, your best bet is to turn right before reaching the Home Depot and then turning right again to move toward Emil’s.

Cost: This isn’t too bad, as most sandwiches are about $10-11. If you get an appetizer, plan on about $30 total.

Parking: This can fill up a little bit, but the presence of Home Depot means if the lot does get full, just go into the Home Depot’s lot and walk over. I would not advise doing this in February, but when the weather’s good, it makes perfect sense.

Seating arrangements: Booths, tables and chairs, which are pretty comfortable.

Website: Emil’s Hideaway

Specialty items: Chicken rangoons, shrimp bacon club, apple jack cheese

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Emil's Hideaway on Urbanspoon

Wig and Pen, Coralville/Iowa City, Iowa

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When most people think of pizza in the Midwest, they think of one place: Chicago. And why wouldn’t they? Deep-dish pizza is legendary in the Windy City, and they do it right, piling on the cheese and toppings before covering it all in tomato sauce and baking to perfection. The slices are big, hot, flavorful, filling, delicious and well-made. There’s no doubt that Chicagoland’s reputation for pizza is well-deserved.

Far fewer people know about Quad-City style pizza, and truthfully, that’s a good thing that it’s not as well-known as Chicago, because the pizza we serve here in the Q-C is frankly an insult to the word pizza. I’m not a pizza elitist like my good friend Will Palaszczuk, who has very strict standards on what is and isn’t a pizza, but I know what is good and what isn’t good, and frankly, Quad-City style pizza not only isn’t good, I wouldn’t even call it edible. It’s cut into thin strips, the crust is about the texture and taste of cardboard, it’s loaded with mediocre toppings and then essentially slathered in grease. I know, it sounds so appetizing.

Problem for me is, people actually like that stuff here. Harris Pizza started this awful trend years ago, and I found out the hard way that it’s popular when I worked for the newspaper here and they would repeatedly bring in Harris whenever they had a night that led them to bring in food for the newsroom (which happens whenever the real news writers have to stay late for a big event), which caused me to adopt the “Even If It’s Free” policy, which means I won’t touch it even if it’s free. It’s sort of a play off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stance on signing Tim Tebow. But unfortunately, enough people like it that almost all of the local pizza places serve Quad-City style, meaning that if you want pizza, as in something that most people would consider pizza, you either have to go to a chain or conduct an exhaustive search for a place that doesn’t serve it Quad-City style. Or you can make the three-hour trip to Chicago, an option we’ve done a few times. Ames is also an option, but that’s even further than Chicago.

However, less than an hour away from the Q-C sits Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa and some pretty awesome restaurants of its own. At 50 miles away from the far western part of Davenport, Iowa City and its twin city of Coralville are far enough away to be untouched by the sprawl of Quad-City style pizza in this area. In fact, Iowa City actually knows how to do pizza right, and in the most unlikely of places. To find good pizza in Iowa City, you head into Coralville and head to an English pub.

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Yes, that’s right, a place that looks more like something you’d see across the pond on a Saturday of watching the Premier League is actually home to some excellent pies, so much so that they’ve been named the best pizza in the Hawkeye State by Zagat. Well, Iowa isn’t exactly a bastion for great pizza, but it is home to Black Market in Ames, and that’s one that I know is good. Throw in an English pub and their uniquely named Flying Tomato pizza, and it was pretty obvious that I was intrigued by the Wig and Pen. Amy felt the same way, so in we stepped, passing an old-style red phone booth on the way in. This place really plays up the fact that it’s an English pub, first and foremost.

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As she usually does, Amy decided that she had to try Wig and Pen’s Caesar salad. One of the easiest ways to bring a smile to my wonderful lady’s face is to give her a quality Caesar salad, as she loves the taste of Caesar salad and the freshness of one that’s made properly. She hasn’t found one quite like Woodfire’s grilled Caesar yet, but this one certainly had both quality and size going for it. This salad was so big that Amy quickly realized she had no hope of finishing it all if she wanted pizza, and seeing as how Amy is the kind of person who would be very happy to eat pizza for every meal for a week, she definitely wanted to try some pizza. So I helped finish it, and even though Caesar is not my thing, this was quality. I would have preferred it with a nice ranch dressing, but the lettuce and cheese worked well enough for this to be tasty despite my lack of Caesar fandom. About the only thing Amy wished she could have had here was a breadstick. Small thing, though, as it was still outstanding.

With that out of the way, it was pizza time. Normally, when Amy and I go out for pizza, we can get something to please both of us without much hassle. We like most of the same toppings, which usually makes this a simple process. However, this time, we decided to go for different pizzas, and not because of the toppings, but because of the crusts. Wig and Pen has three of them, and they range in style and thickness. The thin crust and deep dish styles are pretty common at pizza places anywhere, but the third one is fairly unique.

The third one is known as the Flying Tomato, and it’s kind of a hybrid between the two styles. The Flying Tomato is billed as a pan version of Wig and Pen’s pizza and topped with tomato slices along with the mozzarella, which essentially gives you a free topping. It’s something that isn’t easily found, and when I saw that, I knew that it was something I had to try. Amy, on the other hand, isn’t the biggest fan of tomato slices on pizza, so she decided to go for the deep dish pizza. With that being the case, I went with a mix of spinach, mushrooms and black olives along with the tomatoes, while Amy went simple and opted for mushrooms.

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Both pizzas were excellent. The Flying Tomato proved even better than advertised because all of the tomato slices were topped with herbs and cheese, providing extra flavor throughout the pizza. The toppings were all fresh and worked in perfect harmony with each other, the dough was a great complement to the cheese and sauce and the top of the pizza was grease-free. Nothing irks me more when a pizza comes out so covered in grease that it needs to be mopped up before you actually eat it, but that’s not a problem here. This was a well-cooked pizza, not to mention a large one. Normally, I can finish a small pizza, but not here, as I had a couple of slices left to bring home and consume for lunch the next day.

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Amy found herself in the same situation with her deep dish. The sauce was a high quality and the pizza looked and tasted like what you might expect to find in Chicago. As often happens, we each sampled a bit of each other’s order, and I found her pizza to be very impressive and very enjoyable, although not quite at the level of my own pizza. The Flying Tomato’s style was just something different that I really loved, partially because I happen to really be a fan of fresh tomatoes on pizza and partially because it was so nice to find something in eastern Iowa that could actually call itself pizza and be accurate.

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You wouldn’t expect to find good pizza in a restaurant with an English theme, given that the English are much more known for a meal of fish and chips over a pint with the Premier League on the telly. But then again, you also wouldn’t expect to find an English-themed pub in Coralville or Iowa City, so conventional expectations should be thrown out the window here. It’s taken me almost three years to do it, but I’ve finally found a non-chain pizza place within an hour’s trip that I can genuinely enjoy. It’s truly been a long time coming.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch if you want to eat in Coralville, as it opens at 11 a.m. every day. Wig and Pen’s eastern location in Iowa City proper opens at 4 p.m., making it a dinner-only option.

Wait during my visit: None. It’s Iowa, you’re not going to wait long for a table unless people are cramming in to watch a Hawkeyes game. That reminds me, don’t go on a Iowa football Saturday unless you love battling traffic.

Location: Wig and Pen’s main location is at 1220 Highway 6 West in Coralville, Iowa. Technically, it has an Iowa City address, but truthfully, nobody is exactly sure where Iowa City ends and Coralville begins, because the restaurant literally 200 feet away has a Coralville address. This might really be a problem for writers who have to cover track or softball at Iowa, because the facilities are right across the street, which means that they might be entirely in one city or that it might be possible to have a ball start in one city and land in the other.

Cost: This can be a bit high, but remember, these are big pizzas, so you’re essentially paying for two meals, not one. That makes the $13 price tag for the basic small pizza easier to stomach. For each topping, you’ll pay $1.55 for small, $1.75 for medium and $1.95 for large. Or, you could just pay for a specialty pizza, such as the Union Jack (Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions and red peppers) or the Twickenham (artichokes, garlic, black olives, Roma tomatoes, spinach and feta), which will run $17 for a small and $24 for large. These prices are for Flying Tomato and deep dish only, though, as thin crust is $4 cheaper than Flying Tomato and deep dish, so if you’re on a budget, thin is in.

Parking: Plentiful. With another restaurant next door, you definitely don’t have to worry about finding a spot to park…unless, of course, the Hawkeyes are at home on Saturday.

Seating arrangement: Think wooden booths like your typical English pub, and you’ve got the picture.

Website: Wig and Pen

Specialty items: Flying Tomato pizza

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