Tuesday, September 23, 2008
2 weeks ago, I started to get a serious craving for a good bowl of Vietnamese pho. I thought I was straight out of luck. No way, I thought, would I be able to find a good Vietnamese restaurant any closer than Chicago. However, when my dad and I went into Des Moines this last Saturday, I saw a slim chance to satisfy the urge for pho that had been gnawing at me. A quick search for “Vietnamese Des Moines” on Google popped up one destination: A Dong.
Located right outside of the heart of downtown, A Dong occupies a non descript but nice facility. However, the extensive menu immediately thrills. With over 100 (!) items, it takes on a little while to make ones mind up. My dad had never had Vietnamese food before, so my selection was what I considered to be “typical” Vietnamese food, if a culture with such a breadth of ingredients and styles can be said to have three typical dishes.
We started off with some regular spring rolls: cabbage, minced pork and rice vermicelli noodles (a Vietnamese staple) wrapped tightly together in rice paper. The rolls were good: crisp and fresh tasting, they compared well with what I have had in Los Angeles. The dipping sauce was not as good, but I prefer just a little hot sauce anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal.
For the entrée, I chose a standard beef pho as well as a shrimp and pork soup. Sorry for the lack of the “real” name; I cleverly nabbed a menu, and then lost it. Both were served with a bowl of raw bean sprouts, cilantro, mint and peppers to flavor the broths.
The pho was good; the stock, which is the cornerstone of the dish, was nice and hearty, with good beef flavor. There could have been a little more beef in the dish in general, but it definitely satisfied my craving. The other soup, which was a slightly spicy, tomato based broth with thin pasta noodles, as opposed to rice, was OK. The seafood broth was overpowered by the spiciness, and there were not enough shrimp in the soup to give it a distinct flavor. Not that is was bad, per se; just not as good as the pho.
A Dong provided an excellent overall Vietnamese experience. The dishes could have benefited from a little more meat in general, but otherwise were enjoyable. The prices were definitely correct (our meal was $17 for 2), and the service was good. I look forward to returning to A Dong and working my way through more of their menu.
Why should anyone ever write a blog about Iowa? Its cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and only has pigs and corn. That’s true, and that’s what I originally though when I came to Grinnell College, a small college in the heart of rural Iowa, from my home in Los Angeles. But I went beyond that.
As my first year at college wore on, I realized that instead of looking at what Iowa doesn’t have, I should look at what it does have. My mother, who grew up in Iowa, helped me realize that Iowa has more than just cornfields and small towns. As an avid foodie and adventurous eater, I had not expected much from Iowa. Now I realize that it has a wealth of culinary experiences and products to sample from. From prosciutto to goat cheese, to farm fresh milk and yogurt, Iowa has more than just meets the eye.
The purpose of this blog is to prove that Iowa, in fact, has things in it. It has fantastic local producers who are passionate about high quality and sustainable food, and that its restaurants are taking advantage of those local producers.
I hope you will join me as I roam around Iowa, sampling the gourmet products that this bountiful and fertile state has to offer.
Monday, September 22, 2008
A quick glance down a menu can sometimes tell you more than the most experienced restaurant critic. What are the main courses? Is the menu in French? Italian? Are prices included? What about pictures? What are the prices? After the initial once-over and appraisal, one can then peruse for what they actually want to eat.
Rubes steakhouse in Montour, Iowa does away with the menu entirely. In favor of the utilitarian and practical butcher counter. Your waitress starts the evening by welcoming you to the “original grill your own steak restaurant” (founded in 1973), and half-heartedly urges you to enjoy the salad bar. One immediately gets the impression that vegetables are strictly second class citizens; mere accompaniments to the meat.
Rube’s “menu”is a quick but obviously practiced and well-informed briefing regarding the steaks behind the glass, on the aforementioned butchers counter. After a quick deliberation about which piece of Iowa raised beef, butchered and aged across the street, your decision is then deposited unceremoniously on a white porcelain plate. If you so choose, you can also get a mini cast iron skillet full of raw vegetables. Our waitress noted the best way to cook them was to “just throw in a couple of ladle-fulls of butter and leave it alone”. The butter, needless to say, sits in a metal vat on the side of the grill, with ladles for the sides and brushes for the texas toast that you can also grill up.
The steak, once you cook it on one of the 2 communal grills to your preferred level of doneness, is delicious. Rube’s has perfected a simple formula of good beef and casual atmosphere to create a sublimely enjoyable steak experience. Everything, from the smell of barbequing steaks as you walk in, to the butcher counter steak briefing to the first bite of a juicy New York strip steak declares that Rubes is a restaurant for meat lovers to kick back and enjoy their favorite.
My steak experience there was excellent. I had a delectable 12 ounce New York strip steak. After a few minutes on the grill, it was perfect; tender, flavorful, and not too fatty, although with plenty of marbling. My vegetable side of green peppers and onions was good, although it takes much longer to cook than the steak- I wish my waitress had cautioned me about it. My only gripe about Rube’s concerns the indoor grills. On their website, they proudly proclaim they can support 520 (!) people at full capacity. Maybe- however, with maybe 50 the grills were strained to capacity, and uncomfortably packed with Iowans trying to tend their beef. However, once can really just throw ones meat on and forget it, which is what I did- it still was one of the best steaks I have ever had.
Rube’s is a perfect metaphor for small town Iowa. The surrounding community of Montour is little more than a wide spot in the road. AS you drive through the two blocks of “downtown”, your only hint to the steakhouses presence is a small, unadorned building with the word “Rube’s”. Simple, honest and unpretentious, it is restaurant-ian representation of the farmers that work on the cornfields surrounding the town.
Since its inception 37 years ago in 1973, Rubes has grown. The small meat butcher that supplied them with steaks originally has been acquired by the restaurant, and now ships its premium-aged steaks anywhere in the US. The founder, Glen “Rube” Rubenbauer retired in 1993; however, the steak remains of the same high quality.
What should you expect from Rube’s? Look at the menu. A casual, honest DIY steak experience with the best elements of small town Iowa.
Food Tour of Iowa: Hinegardner's Orchard
Iowa has a lot of nothing.
Not a particularly profound statement; but one that was reinforced on my drive out to Hinegardner's. It has a corollary though: that same absence makes the items of interest all the more notable.
As I drove out to the Orchard, I passed through rolling cornfields, quaint old country stores and old, Midwestern towns with names like “Tama” and “Toledo”. Because it was a Sunday, the Main Streets were empty; only ghosts seemed to inhabit the towns I passed through. There was one exception: the grandly appointed and architecturally imposing Meskwaki casino, which ironically marked the turn off to the very humble, but far more interesting, orchard.
Hinegardner’s orchard is Hinegardner’s Orchard. That is, it is in the most literal way the orchard of the Hinegardner family.
As soon as I got there, John, the current operator, urged me to “go ahead and hop on” the back of a red 4 wheeler. With that, we were off. The tour was very interactive; I probably ate 5 apples. John had knack for illustrating comments about flavor with a practical and tasty example.
“This is a Johnathan. Good taste; I prefer a JohnnyGold though”. He illustrated his point by pulling one off the branch as we passed under the tree. It was good; probably twice as good because I had just seen it picked off the tree. Crisp and delicious, but more interestingly room temperature. These apples hadn’t been chilling in a refrigerator. The entire trip was like that. As we wound our way through rows of Golden Delicious, Johnathan, Johnny Gold, Honeycrisp apples, as well as some Stark Delicious pears, John would drive under a particularly likely looking limb and urge me to pluck one off and give it a taste; they were all delicious. The tour was part history lesson, part family history, and part agriculture.
Johns grandfather started the Hinegardner estate, as I will call it, with just a horse and a plow in 1937. His mission: to plow out a lake for depression and World War 2 era customers, who were short on money and gas. At the lake, they would be able to get away for a small vacation. Later, he sold his 250 acres in Texas and upgraded to a caterpillar. Now it is a fine lake; large enough to accommodate water-skiers and fisherman who are looking for bass and walleye. While the entire farm was extremely picturesque, the lake was especially so. Nestled in between the rolling hills of Central Iowa, it stretched majestically between two banks filled with Oak trees.
As we bounced our way across the road to the lake from the orchard, John related the pleasures of growing up around the lake, roller-skating, fishing and having all sorts of outdoor fun. Looking around, I saw myself as a little kid; running through the trees, swimming and fishing; I could see myself getting used to it.
The orchard, in comparison to the lake, is a more recent development. It was started in 1967, but didn’t start really producing fruit around 1971. People did then, and still do, come to pick their own bushels of apples and pears, from the different varieties of trees in the Orchard. John keeps about 3,000 trees and has to plant about 100 per year to keep that number steady.
After the first lap around the orchard, while I was still reeling from the profusion of names, facts about apple trees and the giddying adventure of riding on the back of a 4-wheeler (a first for me; might I add. In addition, during the entire adventure I was hanging on with one hand, taking notes with the other and taking pictures with the hand that was supposed to keep me from falling off), we stopped at the cider house, where John makes cider with the extra apples.
Cider, for those of us not in the know, which until recently included myself, is simply 100% apple juice; completely undiluted. I had always thought of cider as a completely different beverage; apparently I had always thought wrong. Anyway, the process for making it could not be simpler. The shed consisted of a washer, a masher, a juicer, and two large stainless steel holding tanks for the finished product. The apples are first washed and blended together, to make a mixture very similar to applesauce. John then extracts the juice, and pipes it into the holding tanks. From there, it is conveyed to thirsty consumers across the state. I know I have some in the local supermarket (verdict: delicious).
I asked John about the type of people that buy from him. He told me he sells a lot of his produce in farmers markets, as well as to grocery stores. Might I add, my college is also a substantial consumer of apples: Grinnell College buys 3600 apples per week from John (A bushel is about 120 apples; the college buys about 30 bushels per week). However, the type of consumer has changed. Up until the 1980’s Hinegardner’s saw a substantial flow of depression era customers, who picked their own because it’s the economical choice (at John’s, a bushel of apples is $18- about 15 cents an apple-not bad). They would pick 10-15 bushels of apples to can and preserve through the winter. These days, the pick your own customers are mostly families looking to get out for a trip.
John really highlighted how little I actually knew about apples. For something I eat with every meal, I knew little about that delicious fruit. The trees live for anywhere from 20 to 40 years, and they produce fruit from late July to mid October, depending on the variety. Trees are mainly lost as the branches break off and become too gnarled to harvest from. They also do not have a very extensive root system, and can fall over.
I drove away tired, filled to the brim with facts and covered with a layer of dust, and deeply happy with life, apples, and the state of Iowa.
Figure 1: My Ride
On the way out to the orchard: a deserted Main Street
The Sheridan Store: Coming soon!
The grand Meskwaki Casino
The Cider press, and another young Hinegardner