Sunday, September 28, 2014

Firetrucker Brewery comes to the rescue!

Upon stumbling across Firetrucker Brewery's logo set in concrete outside its doors on my first visit, I had high expectations for this young brewery located in the old firehouse in Ankeny’s Uptown neighborhood. And after my first flight of beers – featuring the Steam Engine, First Responder Red (since replaced with the 2 Alarm Red), Burnout Brown, and Pumper Truck Porter – I was not disappointed.

The folks at Firetrucker have put a lot of attention to detail in creating a first-rate brewpub on their premises, along with some fine promotional artwork I was pleased to find was created by Scott Kaven, an old acquaintance of mine and a partner in the brewery. Scott created Firetrucker’s logo, beer tap handles, commemorative posters, T-shirts, and other items.

Such efforts aren’t lost on the beer. The one brew at Firetrucker that I always go back to is the Steam Engine, below left, the only steam beer I know of produced locally. A good, dependable beer: flavorful but not aggressively hoppy. Its stealthily enamoring. The Uptown IPA, below center, is most approachable for the hop novice, but satisfying enough for mature palates. Firetrucker’s 2 Alarm Red, below right, is malty, nominally bitter with a sweet finish. A beer for breakfast!

The Pumper Truck Porter, below left, offers deep flavors of coffee, currant, and a smidgen of molasses. Firetrucker's Cat in a Tree ginger beer, below center, is amazing! Gingery, lightly effervescent, and at only 4% ABV is an easy drinking brew. The latest release from Firetrucker is the Grizzly Stout, below right. Deep roasty malt, a touch of molasses, and a friendly smoke finish. A superior stout!

The three brews from Firetrucker Brewery that impress me the most are the Steam Engine, Cat in a Tree, and the Grizzly Stout. If I were given a choice of one beer to drink for the remainder of my days, that choice would be the Steam Engine. The Cat in a Tree is one of the most delicious and refreshing ginger beers I’ve ever tried, with or without alcohol. And the cherry wood smoked Grizzly Stout is as about as perfect a stout can get. They're all keepers in my book.

Firetrucker Brewery on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Recent breakfasts at familiar haunts: Mr. Filet, Walnut Café, Papa Kerns.

A Greek Omelet with crispy hash browns at Mr. Filet is one of my favorite things for breakfast. Caramelized onions dredged from the insides were sweet and tender. Whole potatoes are baked, chilled, then hand-grated; the hash browns are some of the best in town.

The hash browns by themselves are first rate, but fixed up with cheese, onion and peppers, then topped with three eggs? Oof! On the rare occasion I’m at Mr. Filet for lunch, I'll just stick with a gyro, simply adorned with tsatziki sauce and jalapeños, and a side salad.

Above left was that particular day's insomnia fueled breakfast at the Walnut Café in the Neal Smith Federal Building. All animal, no carb. On the right, a Denver Omelet with splashes of Louisiana Hot Sauce, plus hash browns with gravy, at Papa Kerns Cafe. I had to walk all the way back downtown to work this bad boy off.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Random Bites of Detritus: Bunions and things of note while walking about town.

The sad, unfortunately themed sequel to Goodnight Moon.

Oh, the stoic majesty of Tire Horse on the roof of Hilltop Tire Service at E. 29th & Hubbell. Standing alone, in judgement of us all.

It isn't all just padding underneath those football uniforms.

A place named the Kum & Go Theater seems more appropriate for screenings of Deep Throat rather than Koyaanisqatsi.

Des Moines' last functioning water trough. At Sam Cohen Park off S.E. 10th & Scott.

Rub-a-dub-dub. Viking bear in a tub.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Vaya con Dios, Malo.

Malo is the latest venture from restauranteur George Formaro, offering New Latin American cuisine out of what was once the engine bay of a fire station at the corner of Ninth & Mulberry, now also home to the Des Moines Social Club and my espresso du jour, Capes Kafé.

On my first visit I ordered up a quartet of tacos: Al Pastor, Barbacoa, Chile Relleno, and Chorizo. These run the gamut from three to four bucks apiece, but are quite sizable. What I had wasn't terribly spicy, but that's what hot sauce is made for. Each has a very distinct taste, not brash bruisers, but delicate in flavor with a boatload of seared flesh. All four were garnished with white onion and cilantro.

The Chile Relleno taco [above right] offers a battered, fried bell pepper stuffed with queso Chihuahua, topped with shredded cabbage and pico de gallo. Its quite vegetal and an excellent vegetarian offering. Malo has since swapped out the bell pepper with a more traditional poblano chile.

The Al Pastor [above left] takes chile-marinated pork shoulder and tops it with pineapple and tomatillo salsa. The cubed pork has an appropriate springiness with wisps of crisp sear. The Barbacoa [above center] sporting braised beef with Jorge’s salsa was very beefy, with delightful strands of browning. Its easily the most filling taco on the plate. Malo’s Chorizo taco [above right] features housemade pork sausage with tomatillo salsa. The chorizo is quite juicy and well seasoned, almost herbaceous, but saltier than I cared for.

Malo’s tomatoey Salsa Roja is thick and bright with an underpinning of smokiness, but is not picante. The hearty, rich Guacamole is pretty straightforward: chopped and mashed avocado with chopped onion and lime juice; but shredded cheddar cheese is a distracting, unwelcome topping, muddling the flavor. I would much rather have it as a optional add-on like the bacon or crab Malo offers.

The Tijuana Trainwreck is a re-imaging of the traditional Mexican dish of chilaquiles – corn tortillas cut in quarters or strips, lightly fried, and combined with salsa and often eggs – as a casserole of chorizo, tortillas, Salsa Roja, tomatoes, and onion, topped with sliced avocado, cilantro creme, and a fried egg.

The housemade chorizo is a bonus in this application and adds great flavor, and the fried egg atop is visually pleasing, but the casserole is quite weighty and rather mushy as I dug down into it. I much prefer a more common preparation of having the fried tortilla strips combined with scrambled egg, then tossed with salsa. My personal gold standard for chilaquiles served this way can be had at the Ceres Cafe in Chicago - its an extraordinary mélange [see blog post].

Stacked Enchiladas present corn tortillas layered with queso fresco (since replaced with queso Chihuahua), corn salsa, black beans, sour cream, topped with a fried egg, and served with sides of sour cream, tomato, lettuce, and guacamole. Its a well built dish, but there was an underpinning sweetness I wasn’t fond of.

Despite the innovations that New Latin American cuisine offers – Chef Sam Auen of Tacopocalypse single-handedly introduced Central Iowans to the pleasures of cabbage slaw as a taco topper over the ubiquitous mound of shredded yellow cheese – I’ve find myself preferring the much simpler, more traditional fare that can be had at places like Los Laureles [see blog post] or one of Tacos Villanueva's taco movils (trucks).

Malo is undoubtedly developing a fan base much like Tacopocalypse, drawn by the inventive cuisine, and as much if not more by the personalities that helm each venture. I feel no immediate desire to revisit Malo in the near future. I’ve got places east of the Capitol like Los Laureles, Tacos Villanueva, Pupuseria La Cuscatleca, and Tacqueria Jalisco to sway my palate. Vaya con Dios, Malo.

Malo on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 15, 2014

A day spent at the 2014 Iowa State Fair.

Canned sausage gravy – Now that's home cookin’; Mouse flavored cheese curds?!?! Ulp!; I don't want no stinking butter on my corn – I want mayo and queso Cojita!

From left: Firetrucker taps, Veneration IPA, The Herd, Cane Blade Double IPA.

It was good to find the Metro’s newest brewery – Firetrucker – representing itself among the taps at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent. Quite familiar with Firetrucker's brews, I returned to the Tent over the course of the day to sample IPAs from around the state. Veneration IPA from Okoboji Brewing Company of Spirit Lake had a light bitterness and went down easy, perfect for a hot summer – if we had gotten one this year; The Herd, a West Coast IPA from Davenport's Great River Brewery was robustly flavored; and the Cane Blade Double IPA from Backpocket Brewing of Coralville was exceptionally hoppy.

The Three Buck Bowl at Steer N Stein consisted of a pair of potato skins, topped with scrambled egg, salsa, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. A bargain but not adventurous in flavor.

Bauder's Brownie Blitz – cream cheese brownie bits, with whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and flakes of coconut was a fun treat, though I had to eat away most of the cream to get to the delicious brownie bits. I would love to see this return to the Fair next year but layered like a parfait.

The Smoked Brisket and Bacon Mac N Cheese from the Rib Shack was very creamy, possessed a fair amount of meat without being distracting, and the pasta sported a decent texture. This dish would be exemplary if it were baked with a crumb topping. The Salad Bowl’s Caprese On-a-Stick offered cherry tomatoes, shards of basil leaf, and mozzarella balls on a skewer. A balsamic vinaigrette drizzle clung poorly; a reduction might work better.

A deep-fried Tater Dog On-a-Stick from Brenda Smith Concessions tastes like a hot dog with a basket of fries. One thing I’ve noticed about deep-fried wieners is that they tend to taste saltier than their grilled or boiled counterparts. Though I abhor ketchup on a hot dog, or worse on a corn dog, the Tater Dog benefits from a dollop of the red stuff.

After a few hour’s rest home and a positive blood glucose test, I was emboldened to return to the Fair for evening eats. Having had a disappointing experience with a foot long chili dog from a Fair vendor back in 2012 [see blog post], I was pleased to find a legit dog at the Coney Corner. It excelled on all facets: wiener, bun, and most importantly, the chili. A goodly dash of chopped onion with a ribbon of mustard did not distract from the reasonably spicy chili, yet made the dog all the more better. My fond affection for Campbell’s foot long corn dog is sorely tested.

A great disappointment was the inedible brick that was the Deep Fried Mac & Cheese from Hotchkiss. The batter crust that held the unremarkably flavored macaroni and cheese together was quite crunchy and greasy. The dollop of flavored sour cream on top was the most enjoyable part. I was pretty much put off eating anything else, but a cool scoop of Bauder's Chocolate Royale ice cream salvaged the moment.

The Depot taco stand shamelessly uses photos of Tasty Tacos to promote their own fare.

I would be reticent not to mention my earlier visit to the 2014 Iowa State Fair to sample Parlo Pizza’s superior wood-fired-oven pizzas [see blog post].