People think of Des Moines, Iowa as a mythical place, like Brigadoon: Every four years, it rises up out of the mist, drawing national media reporters and political candidates for a few frantic weeks, and then when our caucuses are over, everyone leaves, and the city disappears back into what coastal people derisively write off as “flyover country.”
In election years, the national media continually complains that Iowa is too small, too rural, too old, and too white to deserve its status as “first in the nation” in the presidential nomination process.
Well, maybe. But our small cities are different, and Des Moines is unquestionably more diverse than the rest of the state. When Andrew Zimmern came here in 2013 for a “Bizarre Foods America” episode, for instance, he included a meal he had with the city’s Sudanese refugee community at the Cottage Grove Presbyterian Church.
People are also noticing that Iowa, in the center of the nation’s heartland, doesn’t just ship food everywhere else. We also turn out some decent food. Every year in June, Mrs. Food and I visit Des Moines for a weekend church conference, and we make it a point to hit some of the city’s interesting food spots.
This year, our Saturday lunch was at Smokey D’s barbecue restaurant. Darren & Sherry Warth have been ranked in the top ten bbq competitors in the nation for many years, and have won the big championships, like the American Royal & Jack Daniels competitions.
The restaurant walls are covered with their trophies and ribbons, so that as you’re waiting in the efficiently-moving line, you have a moment for your sense of awe to build. The Warths aren’t selling hype: Smokey D’s skills are the real deal, and they bring it to the meat they serve in their restaurant.
I had the lunch rack platter: five perfect ribs plus two sides and garlic toast. Mrs. Food had a burnt-ends sandwich. The ribs were absolutely perfect by any measure, and didn’t need sauce. They had a clear smoke ring, and were edible down to the bone, but not the overdone “fall of the bone” that some aim for. The sides were adequate. The cole slaw was just fine, though my personal preference is for something creamier. The mac and cheese had some adult-level heat. It was ok, but the cheese tasted a bit too much like Velveeta for me. (That’s meant to be an observation, not a complaint: I certainly ate the whole thing.
When you think of barbecue, you probably think of a place connected with your regional preference: Lexington, NC, Memphis, Tenn., Kansas City, Mo., Lockhart, Tex. You probably don’t think of Des Moines, Iowa. But Smokey D’s belongs with the very best, and it really felt like an honor to be able to eat there.
Sunday lunch was the Soul Food buffet at Patton’s, a small restaurant a couple of blocks east of the Capitol. The food is indeed served up buffet-style, and the atmosphere is comfortably casual. But Patton’s does use real plates and silverware, not styrofoam and plastic, and that gives the food the more formal feel that it deserves.
Chef Pam Patton opened the restaurant in 2010. Soul food is all about the love, and it’s obvious with every forkful that Patton puts her heart into her work. The flavors are all there. It tastes like home-cooked food, if Pam Patton was cooking it in your kitchen. She knows how to take the familiar dishes and make them better.
Last year, I had her red beans and rice, and I’ve been trying to recapture her flavors ever since. I suspect that this year, I’ll be trying to re-create the flavor of her sweet potato casserole. The chicken stuffing was so good that it might be a while before I even bother attempting to mimic hers. As with Smokey D’s, it’s an honor to eat Pam Patton’s masterpieces.
Both restaurants have been featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Sometimes Guy’s hype is just that. But these spots are the real deal. And they’re both right here in Des Moines. Maybe before we leave town tomorrow, I’ll try an Undead Elvis at the Zombie Burger.
If you want to do something to atone for your overeating in Des Moines, a little walk along the Des Moines River is a pleasant way to burn off some excess calories. Or you can curse at your insurance company’s headquarters, which are probably somewhere in those buildings.