Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Des Moines & Other Heartland Locales

Occasionally, the entire Hackknife family will pack up the family truckster and head to wherever Mrs. Hackknife happens to be working on a project that week. This particular time, we made a visit to Des Moines for a short 4-day trip into the nation's agricultural heartland. Little did I realize when we were leaving home that I'd end up with enough fodder to generate a foodie blog posting.

A few years ago (prior to the arrival of Hackknifette), we made another trip to Des Moines, stopping for lunch in the Amana Colonies. Having gotten a later start this time around and with Hackknife Jr. agitating to use the hotel pool as soon as possible, we decided to make a briefer Amana Colonies lunch stop right off I-80 at Ox Yoke Inn's expressway location. Featuring family-style, traditional German food, Ox Yoke Inn was a tasty alternative to the usual fast-food joints lining the highways. I tried the "Bavari-Inn" sandwich (ham, roast beef, and swiss on marble rye with grilled onions and creamy horseradish sauce), while Mrs. Hackknife had a darned good Wiener Schnitzel plate. Definitely a good omen for the next few days of our trip.

Monday saw me and the kids head over to Valley Junction, a historic shopping district not far from our hotel in West Des Moines. Our first stop was recommended to us by one of Mrs. Hackknife's coworkers as an excellent place to get sweets - Nan's Nummies. An old-fashioned candy shop with glass cases full of delectable sweets, Nan's was clearly the place to bring children (and adults) right before lunch for appetite-stoking. Hackknife Jr. got some jellybeans and a Spongebob Squarepants cookie, while I bagged up to go a chocolate-caramel oatmeal brownie, an almond paste-stuffed Dutch letter, and some sort of cream puff-filled pastry whose name eludes me at the moment. All were delicious and it was all I could do to save a couple of crumbs for Mrs. Hackknife to try after work (sorry, dear). Before heading back to the hotel for lunch, I wandered into a small diner seeking a sandwich for myself and happened to stumble across a gentleman selling loose-meat sandwiches called Maid-Rites (forgive me, Iowans, for being ignorant of this concept, but I had to ask for further details). Apparently, there is an entire franchise of fast-food restaurants in the Plains states serving this type of dish (seasoned ground beef presented on a bun - like Sloppy Joe without the sauce - with pickles, onions, and mustard), with this particular diner (Paula's Maid Rite) selling their version of the sandwich somewhat illicitly. The owner and I had a nice conversation that concluded with him asking us to put a pin in his wall map showing the hometowns of all out-of-state visitors to the diner, which Hackknife Jr. much enjoyed. Next time I'm in Iowa, I plan on having another Maid-Rite, imitation or not.

That evening for dinner, Mrs. Hackknife made reservations for us at the local French bistro in downtown Des Moines called Django. She had been raving about how good this place was and, I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about the likelihood of getting decent French food in the middle of Iowa. Boy, was I wrong. The charcuterie plate we shared at the start of the meal was much better than the one I had at a sidewalk cafe in Paris (and I told the waitress as much, who thankfully declined to report me to security as some kind of nut) and the duck confit I had for the entree was mind-blowing. Even now, I dream about the crispy, perfectly-seared duck breast and the lardons (bacon pieces) mixed in with the demi-glace. I spent much of the remainder of our trip trying to figure out how we could potentially eat every remaining meal here (alas, there was no return visit this time).

Moving on to Tues. night, I tried to take us to an old-fashioned soda fountain in town for ice cream, not realizing that they close up shop at 3 pm on weekdays. Luckily, a mall near our hotel had a Blue Sky Creamery in it, which had very good ice cream. I was completely happy with my scoop of banana and all other Hackknife family members were pleased as well.

Last but not least, we were stumped for dinner ideas on our ride home Wednesday night. Hackknifette had slept from Des Moines all the way to the Mississippi River, but now, she was hungry and very ornery, so we were desperate to locate quick sustenance. Unfortunately, northwestern Illinois does not have much to offer - we nearly had to settle for a gas station Subway, but held off just a brief time longer to investigate a couple of eateries just off I-80 in a small town called Sheffield. According to the almightly GPS, three restaurants were located in town, including pizza, a tavern, and a small diner. We gambled on the diner and you can imagine our surprise when we entered the place, finding not a greasy spoon with a bunch of grizzled farmers drinking coffee, but a bright, tidy cafe that would not have looked out of place in Lincoln Park. ZBest Cafe is run by a chef who grew up nearby and, after having worked in numerous kitchens in far-flung locales, came home to open up his own high-end small town place. We were there on fried chicken night, so we chowed down on delectable fried chicken, fresh greens salad, cheese corn, and mashed potatoes, all of which were fantastic. If this restaurant were located in Chicago proper, it wouldn't be a secret for very long. Leave it to Mrs. Hackknife and me to find probably the only culinary school-trained chef in a 50-mile radius by absolute dumb luck.


  1. You were in Des Moines?!? And you did not call or email me?!? You ate at the Amanas, a mere 15 minutes from my home?!? Oh, the food you could have eaten at our house! Oh, the restaurants we know! For shame. More's the pity.

  2. Sorry - I feel much shame. I'll keep that in mind the next time we're streaking across the Midwest to/from Des Moines. When the kiddos are a little older (I'm mostly referring to Natalie here), we'll be better able to do side trips without as much regard for nap/feeding schedules....