Category Archives: DINING

Simon’s for nothing fancy comfort food and comraderie – Des Moines dining

We had the hardest time using a gift certificate to dine at Simon’s (aka J. Benjamin’s) , a cozy neighborhood joint on Des Moines’ north side. Our first mistake may have been trying on Saturday night.  Both times we found a line outside the door (even in the rain). The first night, the small place was dominated by a large table full of prom kids — from far away Ames, no less. We eventually left.

The second night, there was another table of prom kids (this time from the Des Moines area) but we stuck it out and waited for a table, which was actually kind of fun.  We chatted with other waiting diners crammed into a little area between the dining room and the front door. We had a drink at the bar and discovered that one of the servers was someone we knew as a kid when she was in elementary school.

When we finally were seated, we found the food  unexceptional but serviceable/just fine. We decided it was the place to eat uncomplicated southern Italian staples — spaghetti with meatballs and red sauce; hearty lasagna with sausage from local favorite, Graziano’s, and oozing with ricotta and mozzarella.

But we can see why the place is popular.  It has a “Cheers” kind of feel, where everyone would know your name if you told them your name.  The small dining room was so packed that when people walked past our high-walled booth, they inevitably peeked in at us — looking like they hoped they’d spot friends. When they didn’t, they smiled. Some people might find this intrusive. We found it amusing — and endearing. Classic Des Moines.

Also, the service was warm, friendly and swift.  The young owner, in casual garb, went out of his way to acknowledge that people were waiting and to update them on the wait and the options while waiting (like sitting at the bar). That’s the way to do it! And I’m assuming it was his idea to give us a free piece of delicious red velvet cake at the end of our meal. I gather from Yelp that complimentary cake is not unusual…although I can’t promise it.

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New (or newly spotted) at the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market

Several new (or new-to-me) stands at the Des Moines Farmers Market downtown on Saturday mornings are further testament to the creative entrepreneurial spirit that is alive and well in rural America.  Among my favorites is “Judy’s Husband’s Stuffed Pickles” — which not only has an amusing (if somewhat cumbersome) name but has people waiting in line for what appears to be “hand made” pickles stuffed with creamed cheese.

Several ethnic food stands also caught my eye including one selling Korean bibimbap and another cooking up a mean Afro-Caribbean Jerk Chicken.

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Lovely Airbnb, Biking the Lakes, Hot Indian and the Happy Gnome — Twin Cities

at Minnehaha Falls

My friend Nell and I only had a half day here but made the most of it. After driving my son Noah back to his apartment in Minneapolis from a trip home to DSM, we checked into our pretty Airbnb, an early 1900’s four square with a lovely garden in South Minneapolis near the Minnehaha Parkway and bike trail. We stopped at  Midtown Global Market for some “Hot Indian” food including an “indurrito (Indian burrito) and delicious “Indi-Frites” – crispy seasoned fries with an aoili dipping sauce. Clever.

On an afternoon with perfect bike riding weather (cool, light breeze, slightly cloudy) we rode on a lightly populated trail (a Monday) west and north to Lakes Harriet, Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. I did learn that when you ride this direction, you have to stay off of the bike trail that’s on the sidewalk rimming the lakes because it’s carefully designated for riders going the opposite direction — and Twin Cities riders take these designations very seriously, as they should especially on very busy weekends.

The trails were relatively quiet on a Monday but we didn’t want to “break the rules” so we ended up riding a few sections of the trail on the side of the access road lining the trail, which fortunately had few cars but was at times bumpy and sandy. No big deal. I also learned that the Lake of the Isles offers immediate and easy access to the Midtown Greenway trail, another favorite and we rode that subterranean-feeling trail to a cool trailside bike store/cafe called MPLS Coaster Brake Cafe, near the Global Market. I loved that you could wheel your bike right into the store/cafe and park it near some lounge chairs to take a break. No need to lock out front.

Happy Gnomes

We rode back on Portland Avenue along the bike lane which worked well, given the heavy rush hour traffic. There were several other riders, which helped make us a more visible presence on a busy city thoroughfare. Back on the Minnehaha Parkway, we learned the hard way to stay on the trail rather than the bordering streets, in order to get under 35W Highway. (We had to backtrack slightly and portage down some steps with our bikes.) We also had to overshoot the street where our airbnb was because there wasn’t an easy exit off the wooded trail — but no big deal, we just backtracked a little.

Dinner was at The Happy Gnome, a gastropub in St. Paul (which I kept calling the “Grumpy Troll,” a Wisconsin place we’re going to this weekend). We went for the beer (note to self: Indeed is a good local brew!) and ended up staying to eat (note to self: good salmon burger) rather than going to a nearby Cambodian restaurant, as planned. Great company, with two of the world’s nicest boys, errr, young men! On the way home, we stopped briefly at Patisserie 46 (because it was only blocks from our airbnb) and for a quick walk around Minnehaha Falls (note to self: hike this area properly some time!).

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2018 James Beard Award Finalist restaurants in Minneapolis and Milwaukee to try.

Best Chef: Midwest (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI)

Karen Bell (Bavette La Boucherie, Milwaukee)

Steven Brown (Tilia, Minneapolis)

Justin Carlisle (Ardent, Milwaukee)

Gavin Kaysen (Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis)  WON

Ann Kim (Young Joni, Minneapolis)

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(new) Woody’s and Strudl Haus – DSM dining

When we were in Kansas City a few weeks ago, our server at a trendy new restaurant – who graduated from Des Moines’ Drake University – reminisced fondly about her favorite rib joint near campus, Woody’s Smoke Shack. We told her the place had closed but recently reopened with a new owner — a promising sign. Alas, judging from the ribs we got last Friday, the new Woody’s is NOT the old one. The ribs appeared to be cooked without any sauce — so they were pale and unappetizing looking. Worse, they didn’t taste very good. They did come with a container of sauce — sweeter than we remembered Woody’s being. So Woody’s — or at least the one we knew — doesn’t appear to be with us any more. Unless this was just a bad night…

We finally made it to the Strudl Haus on the south side of Des Moines — and the Sunday brunch was good. There were six of us (three celebrating April birthdays, a little late) and we never would have gotten a table in the small place without a reservation — which I made several weeks ago. I enjoyed my “Tuscan” breakfast – two over easy eggs with a slash of olive oil and chopped herbs, served with prosciutto, ricotta and fresh fruit (the included pastry was unnecessary and too sweet as we learned the Monday morning after when we tried). Dirck, who is of German descent, went for the more German/Austrian entree — eggs served with fried sausage (which actually tasked more like fried salami, part of my Jewish palate.) Some others had eggs slathered in a thick yellow Hollandaise — which I can’t stomach visually or physically. The omelets looked good. The service and ambiance — a small European-cafe vibe – was pleasant. All in all, a good brunch option.

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Perplexing meal at Reed’s Hollow – Des Moines

Lots of smoke, little chicken

We had heard mixed things about Reed’s Hollow in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood and in the end, we have to agree with one report that the food is too peculiar/pretentious. I don’t mind experimentation and welcome creativity but the dishes we had were too strange. And such small portions (as Woody Allen would say). We should not leave a meal that cost $71 (before tip) discussing where to get takeout burgers. (We decided to have popcorn at home instead.)

We had three dishes, one technically an entree, listed on the menu as “Smoked Chicken – smoked chicken, confit chicken, chicken skin, hay yogurt, pickled apples, BBQ.”   It arrived,  literally, smoked — in a glass jar filled with smoke. Clever. But about only about 1/4th of the jar’s contents was food — although who could really tell. Most of the jar was filled with smoke.  I recall one solid bite of chicken. Digging around at the bottom of the jar, I came up with various bits and bobs, a piece of crispy skin, some crumbly stuff that appeared to be the biscuit.  All this for $23. Really? There were some good flavors but the dish was confused and skimpy.

So too with our even smaller side dishes (“provisions.”) We had mushroom bread (that would be bread made out of mushrooms with some green asparagus cream, a few pieces of asparagus and some  crunchy finger-shaped crackers that we were told were mesquite twigs.

Our other dish was a few dumplings  filled with a watery broth that, when cut, led to some projectile splattering. There may also have been mushrooms inside the dumplings. They sat atop a smattering of scrambled eggs  and beside I’m not sure what else. Part of the issue was the menu’s written description, which was unclear bordering on misleading.  The dish was described as: “Agnolotti – shiitake soup, zucchini, enoki, scrambled eggs, shiitake bacon.” I’ll admit, I was unfamiliar with several ingredients — as I’m guessing other diners were — so why not explain clearly what they are? I took this to bea soup. Turns out the soup was inside the agnolotti, which is a pasta dumpling. The dumpling was atop the scrambled eggs and some other items, presumably zucchini and bacon made out of a shiitake mushroom.  The dish did have some vivid flavors and  the scrambled eggs were refreshingly loose. But again, a skimpy portion. Dessert was an ice cream sandwich supposed made with a fancy cheddar cheese. We found a small speck or two of the cheese….

Don’t think we will return.

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Filed under Des Moines, DESTINATIONS - Iowa, DINING

High Trestle Trail with Dog/Madrid (Iowa); Picket Fence Creamery/Woodward (Iowa); Hotel Pattee/Perry (Iowa)

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Selfie overlooking the High Trestle Bridge

For my sister’s final day in Des Moines, we finally got half way decent weather (high 40s!, some sun!) so we took a day trip with our sweet Lab mix rescue dog Millie northwest about 40 miles to the High Trestle Trail. What a treat to have the entire bridge to ourselves on an early spring day — and always a spectacular view and surprising structure to find in the middle of Iowa. (It was recently dubbed by the BBC as one of the world’s eight spectacular foot bridges.)IMG_1109 (2)

The good news is that it’s now easier to walk to the bridge quickly along the trail, thanks to a handy sign along highway 210 just west of Madrid, Iowa that helps you clearly find the dirt road (QF Road) that leads to the trailside parking, which is about a ten-minute walk to the bridge.

We stopped at Picket Fence Creamery in nearby Woodward,Iowa and tried a little tub of ice cream and some chocolate milk (that we earlier saw being bottled in the little shop beside the dairy that is on a largely unpopulated dirt road in the country). From there we drove ten minutes further west to the Hotel Pattee which is still hanging in there (last I heard it was for sale again) and is still incredibly impressive, with one-of-a-kind rooms, each decorated with art and artifacts to honor a specific aspect of small town Iowa life. The desk clerk gave us the key to the 1913 farmhouse room but several other rooms were also open so we wandered in them as well (the southeast Asia room, the Irish room, the Russian room…unfortunately the RAGBRAI room wasn’t open)…

Anyway, the three stops made for a perfect half-day road trip from Des Moines, perfect for visitors.

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Filed under Agritourism, bike trails, DESTINATIONS - Iowa, DINING, LODGING