Locally Grown

Des Moines’ Lost Tribe Part 1.1 “Missing In Fraction”

Yesterday I took a chance posting from my new platform (a netbook) in a new location (Downtown Public Library).  One or both of these factors contributed to the deportation of over half the post to a place famous for breeding mysterious professional wrestlers…PARTS UNKNOWN.  The result was a rant about being vegetarian in DSM(DMI) and a small blurb about ONE RESTAURANT, which probably seems to some readers as pretty normal behavior on my part.  Not the case. Today I will attempt to recapture the magic lost at the Public Library yesterday (just MY particular magic, not the other magic I witnessed being lost during my library-ular stay).

Ok, here we go…


I think that starting semi-fresh would be the way to stay today.  I have a new  location (The Incredible Locust Tap…great Wifi) and a new attitude.  Before we get back to the nuts and boltz of the situation, I would like to address the ONE comment left by a reader “Christa” from Tuesday’s mishap of a post.  Christa sez…

“I’ve found Des Moines to be surprisingly veggie-friendly, so long as you stay away from the obvious non-herbivorous spots (BBQ places, steak houses, Machine Shed, etc). I’ve also found that any place that *doesn’t* have obvious vegetarian choices will usually be willing to whip up something special if you ask nicely (and tip well).”

First I would like to thank Christa for her comment.  I value your opinion and readership.  Thank you, Christa.  Now, Christa, I wouldn’t call Our Fair City Veggie Friendly.  I think of it more as Veggie Tolerant. Des Moines lacks the restaurant, co-op, and general support that a good vegetarian friendly city enjoys.  Whole Foods (the Wal-Mart of natural food stuffs) has done a series of studies in DSM and has determined that we will not be ready for a Whole Foods/Co-op or a vegetarian restaurant for 5 or more years.  I call bullshit on that study, the people I talk to on a daily basis are ready for a real Co-op (ala New Pioneer in Iowa City) and a true sit-down vegetarian/vegan dining experience.  Iowa City has been blessed with The Red Avocado, the aforementioned New Pioneer Co-Op, and Masala (vegetarian Indian cuisine). Des Moines has Ritual Cafe and Fresh Cafe (1721 25th street, West Des Moines) which are great in their own right, but we lack a dining experience akin to one you can find even in smaller cities like Laramie, WY of all places. (Anyone want to step up to the plate?)Yes, we also have Campbell’s and New City Market (hey guys, see you for some Gluten soon), but nothing that compares in size to New Pi.  We even have a few Raw Foodist Chefs including Sherri Clark (what up!).  A few chefs have done what they can to raise awareness/fight the fight of vegetarian cuisine in fine dining, namely George Formaro and yours truly (I know, lame self-service) but Des Moines is still in the Vegetarian Dark Ages in comparison to the rest of the country.  Vegetarian Tolerant. Remember that phrase.

Now, in response to Christa’s claim that you can just show up and get vegetarian food wherever and reader Maria’s question as to why she can’t get vegetarian dishes unless is all about the cream and cheese (or cream cheese in La Mie’s case).  Here is the proper way to go about dining out at a locally owned fine dining (or casual dining) restaurant.

  1. Don’t be afraid to use the telephone: If you know in advance that you will be dining at a particular restaurant and you have special dietary requirements, call during off-peak hours (maybe in the morning before lunch or between 2-4pm) and ask about the menu.  Let the person on the phone know what you desire (don’t ask for Thai food in an Italian joint though) and what limitations you have.  If you are REALLY afraid of calling, try e-mail, but it isn’t the recommended protocol.
  2. Be serious about being serious about calling: Don’t procrastinate, if you need special attention from the chef/cook staff the worst way to go about it is to just show up for your reservation and expect the green carpet rolled out for you.  As a chef, I am always up for the challenge but always appreciate when people make it a little less challenging by giving a little fair warning.  Extra time gives the chef a chance to formulate a game plan and maybe pick some supplies up from the store. Small kitchens/restaurants have small menus and keep a small stock of provisions usually tailored toward their current menu.
  3. Seriously, call ahead: or maybe visit if you are in the neighborhood.

That’s how it is done.  Now, as far as casual places or chains go, you are at the mercy of your own creativity.  Look at what is on the menu and deviate where necessary.  One major word of caution is CHICKEN STOCK.  Wait, that’s two words.  There are a few soups out there that contain chicken stock that you wouldn’t suspect.  Two culprits off the top of my head are the house soups at Centro and South Union Cafe.  The tomato-basil-tortellini soup and the Potato Pepperjack are, to my knowledge (I used to make it on a daily basis and tried to change the recipe to no avail) still being made with chicken stock.  You really have to watch for this.  I was drug off to the Quiznos on Grand Ave for lunch one day and the staff there went way out of there way to check with some higher up office as to whether their soup du jour was fowl-free.  It wasn’t, and I was saved from a few extra trips to the rest room that day.  Thank you, ladies.

We do have a number of Vegetarian-Friendly restaurants in the city.  My original post yesterday contained some blurbs about a few of them, but we all know what happened with that little chestnut of info.  Here is another short list, sans blurbs but with the normally absent location information, of a few of my recommended restaurants.

Fresh Cafe, 1721 Twenty Fifth Street Suite 110, West Des Moines  515 440 4700  This place was recommended to me by the cast of Lion King when they were in town.  Fresh Vegan and Vegetarian fare including catering, and fresh Wheat Grass shots.

Gateway Market Cafe, 2002 Woodland Avenue, Des Moines 515 243 1754  Gateway has not only a cafe with clearly marked vegetarian menu items, but a hot case, cold case, grab-n-go, and entire grocery section with plenty of veggie items.  If you can’t decide where to eat, it is a pretty good spot to end your hapless hunting.

Ritual Cafe, 1301 Locust St, Des Moines  515 288 4872  Refer back to here for the info.

A-Dong, 1511 High Street, Des Moines  515 284 5632  Good, basic Vietnamese cuisine with a seperate Vegetarian menu.  Best Veggie Eggrolls (1C) in town.

These are just a few of the places I will be talking about over the next few weeks (Note: this will not be pre-empting my normal bull-honkery).

Eat Your Vegetables,

The Cook


11 Comments so far
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Curious about why you are a vegan?

I have no beef (see what I did there) with vegans, but I have found many of my vegan encounters to be like encounters with hard-core Christian or religious people. (Which I am not) In these encounters, they try to explain to me why I am wrong, what my problems are and why I should believe the way they do (just like the Christians), rather than just getting along.

So, which kind are you? And why do you choose to only eat that sort of food.

My problem usually comes in when I am told that eating other animals is “unnatural”….these people obviously have spent very little time in the wilderness, nor have they probably had to live off of whatever they could find where survival was involved.

Anyway, go have some tofu and enlighten me.


Comment by InthewaterDSM

I should clarify. I moved here from a much larger city and was expecting DSM to be vegetarian hell on earth. I was pleasantly surprised not to have that experience. I agree completely that we need a decent sized co-op (I’m spoiled, as I live within walking distance of both New City and Campbell’s), and I would dearly love for us to have something along the lines of the Chicago Diner.

It’s a shame that Ritual is the only all-veg eatery in town. That said, I’ve almost never felt like I had to settle for picking at a salad at a restaurant in DSM. I’ve had plenty of experiences with helpful servers and chefs that went out of their way to make something off-menu for me. In a few cases, I’ve made a particular request so often that eventually it shows up on the menu (I have a small posse of folks in Johnston who started ordering the portobello sandwich at Mojo’s before it was on their lunch menu).

I’ll admit to defaulting to tofu curries at the Thai places and/or bean chalupas at the Mexican joints, but there are also a number of places that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be good for vegetarians that have surprised me.

Some of my favorite local food surprises:
– veggie sushi that isn’t just your typical avocado/cucumber fare
– falafel and hummus wraps at Ted’s Coney Island
– Open Sesame’s baba ghanoush/eggplant moussaka
– veggie chorizo burritos at Bandit Burrito
– tempeh subs at Planet Sub
– several vegetarian (and at least one vegan) entrees at Cosi Cucina
– the falafel flatbread at Proof
– the huge tofu spring rolls at the King and I

And then there’s some much-missed treasures:
– the enormous veggie burgers and sweet potato fries at Firkin & Fox
– the tempeh reubens at Beggar’s Banquet (alas; I still crave these fortnightly)

I come from a pretty meat-and-potatoes family, so I’m still surprised whenever I feel like someone’s making a special effort to accommodate those of us with herbivorous leanings. Perhaps my bar is set too low, though. DSM certainly has more room to grow in this aspect.

Comment by Christa

I agree completely that preachy vegans can be just as annoying as any other sort of evangelist. I don’t believe in bashing other people for their lifestyle choices.

I originally went vegetarian just to see if I could. Giving up something deliberately in our culture of excess seemed like a worthy experiment.

As for why I stuck with it, I’ve got several reasons: my health (a plant-based diet allows me to forgo cholesterol medication), concerns about large-scale animal-based industry and environmental impact, and yes, even some ethical reasons. But primarily? I like the way it tastes. Vegetarian food at its finest is interesting, diverse and damn tasty.

I think there’s an absolutely valid case to be made for almost anyone to *reduce* their consumption of animal products. If someone asks me (as you’ve done), I’ll tell them why I do it. But I have no interest in making converts. I think people should be aware of where their food comes from, how it impacts the world around them, and then eat what sits best with their body, mouth and conscience.

I like eating plants, therefore I do. I don’t miss meat. I’m healthy and happy. Others may eat what they like; it doesn’t affect me and my choices.

Comment by Christa


Good for you! I mean, it’s really good for you! I was very guilty of being one of those preachy Vegans in my first years (go figure), even going as far as to call out my Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian room mate for causing animal suffering. I have never had the notion to create converts either, but have worked through my employment to further education of cooks and customers as to the health and taste benefits of Vegetarian/vegan cuisine. A few people have seen the light through the years and changed their meaty ways, and they aree better off for it.

If you want that recipe for the Tempeh Reuben from Beggar’s, let me know. That, along with the BBQ Tofu Sandwich were my first contributions to Vegan dining in Des Moines. Did you get a chance to try the Veggie Sushi in the last 6 months Zen was open? The other dishes you name are huge favorites of mine also, especially Bandit Burrito Veg Chorizo Burrito. I would be ok eating that for 75% of my weekly meals.

I was fortunate enough to bear witness one morning to some potential patrons of the Chicago Diner ask Mickey if the menu contained any meat. He went off like a 4th of July finale, declaring that they have and never would serve meat while escorting these poor folks past a packed dining room and out the front door. He was smiling the whole time, and earned cheers from the crowd. That was quite an experience!

I would love to see an new restaurant blossom here in DSM, but until then we will have to keep plugging away with what we have. You are right, it could be worse…but it should be better.

Comment by locallygrown

@Christa Interesting stuff, thanks for sharing. One thing many people don’t keep in mind, is that a lot of people that are vegetarians replace meat or animal products with things even more harmful. I’ve had many friends who decided to be veggies, so they would eat some really horrible stuff, claiming that it was healthier. Anyway, the only thing that really gets me grumpy is the “preachy” stuff, on any subject or belief. Nice to see that some aren’t that way.

Comment by InthewaterDSM

Right… that’s part of knowing where your food comes from. Vegetarian junk food is still junk food. 🙂

Comment by Christa

@locallygrown – Do you have issues working in restaurants that use meat in the menu? Is it just a matter of it being that or nothing around here?

As far as sustainable farms go, I would love to be able to say that I could afford to eat only the best, most expensive food. The reality is that we, as consumers, are forced to make a choice based on our pocket books. I can only imagine how it would be for people with children. Heck, just eating a healthy-ish diet NOT from sustainable farms and organic what-cha-ma-callits is much more pricey.

Really sucks. 😦

Comment by InthewaterDSM

Well, see… to me, that’s an argument to shell out for the good stuff and just eat less of it. Add more cheap vegetarian meals to your repertoire, and save the meat for special occasions. Just one way of looking at that particular dilemma. 🙂

Comment by Christa

I don’t have a problem. I used to, then, as a vegan, a chef I worked for decided it would be funny to make me the butcher. I learned a lot from that experience, both skill-wise and tolerance for those who get a kick out of degrading your “life choices.” After that I pretty much got over my sensitivity and realized this is a job I enjoy, and like any job, there are things you don’t agree with.

The price of locally grown small farm goods does get a little out of hand unless you get in with a CSA or some other like minded program. I have seen quite a few of my aquaintances with children go that route and it ended up saving them hundreds of dollars.

Comment by locallygrown

Yes, you’re right. That is ONE way of looking at it.

Comment by InthewaterDSM

I have a deep love of Gateway Market’s choices and mingling of vegetarian options amongst the meatier options. But if one is a vegan then the options become severely limited. Their cutlets, veggie burgers, enchiladas, and tofu scramble all have cheese in them (though it’s easy enough to have them hold it on the scramble), and almost all of their hot/cold case options and daily soups have meat and/or cream in them. The other day I saw a vegetarian sandwich for the first time that looked reasonably good until I saw that it cost two dollars MORE and was half the height of the roast beef sandwich.

Which brings me to a couple other points:

1) Sometimes I just want a really good sandwich. One that is well thought out and every component is there for a reason. Not a let’s-throw-every-vegetable-we-have-on-a-bun-and-call-it-vegetarian sandwich.

2) Choices. Sure, most restaurants have a vegetarian option. But that’s it. If you’re lucky, there may be two. I am barely picky, but it sucks to go out to eat with meat-lovers who look through the pages of a menu agonizing what to get while I agonize if I can eat plain pasta with red sauce again without going batty.

This usually isn’t a problem in nicer restaurants where the vegetarian options are at least somewhat inspired (I had nettles for the first time on a dish at Centro the other day), but sometimes I don’t want to dish out $15+ for an entree at dinner. And sometimes I want to go on impulse with other people to try a different place without anxiety.

Anyway, I like the vegetable egg rolls better at Thai Flavors than at A Dong (but I love both those places), and I enjoy the veggie chorizo at Bandit Burrito, but wish they’d get better tortillas/wraps.

Comment by maria

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