Two Restaurants We Love (But Out-of-Towners—Not So Much)
A few years back, a woman who moved here from Boston groused about The Yacht Club, the anything-but-swanky bar on Ingersoll.
"These people need to go to Boston and see what a real Yacht Club is like," she said.
I wanted to kick her in the head. Couldn't she under-freakin'-stand that the name of the bar was thoroughly tongue in cheek? Guess not: I reached in my pocket and checked my irony meter; it registered that she had none.
That's an extreme example of the kind of bi-coastal snobbery we sometimes experience in Des Moines. Slightly more subtle versions crop up again and again, however. Just the other night, I met a woman who said that ever since she's moved to Iowa from Washington D.C., she's really struggled with her weight.
"I'm used to eating Asian food," she said. "But real Asian food. Not Iowa Asian food."
So, you're blaming Iowa for your weight gain? Where are you eating? China Buffet? Are you sure it's not the Ho-Hos you've got stashed in your cupboard? Have you not been to A Dong, Café Fusion, Arroy-Dee, Pho All Seasons? Are you actually claiming that these places don't serve real Asian food?
Nowhere, however, do the tongues get more forked than when the topic of our Italian-American restaurants comes up. Do yourself a favor. Never mention The Latin King or Noah's Ark to someone who's not from around here.
This is when people love to blah-blah-blah about restaurants in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens, Boston's North End, San Francisco's North Beach....wherever. And don't even get them started on the food they ate in Italy.
I've been to all those places. I lived in Brooklyn, for heaven's sake. I've spent stretches of time in Italy. Have I eaten at better restaurants than Latin King or Noah's? Of course I have.
Thing is—we all have.
And that's what these blah-blah-blahers don't get. We know Latin King and Noah's aren't Rao's and Teatro and that once-in-a-lifetime spot we ate at in Parma.
But both restaurants have made a lot of people around here very, very happy on many, many occasions. Including me.
I am never going to tell anyone that they should appreciate Noah's and Latin King the way I do. And it's certainly fair game to critique particular dishes you don't like, as we all do when talking about restaurants among friends—and as current Datebook Diner Karla Walsh did in her review of Latin King last spring, being very specific about why she did or didn't enjoy each dish. (A critic's job is to describe food in a way that helps the diner decide whether or not to order it.)
But when others dis much-loved places with one-up-manship and that barely unspoken attitude of, "If you like this place, you obviously don't know real Italian food (or real Asian food or true Yacht clubs)"—that's the thing that sticks into my craw.
Because we know more than you think. And we certainly know why, in spite of our palates being more worldly than you wish to recognize, we still love Noah's and Latin King.
For me, Noah's is all about pizza and warm homemade dinner rolls and its one-of-a-kind lasagna —which is less a layered dish and more a baked casserole known around here as pastacena, with rigatoni, red sauce, mozzarella cheese, sliced meatballs, tomato sauce, and (yum) hard-cooked eggs. It's about sliding into a cozy booth and reconnecting at the end of "one of those days" with a glass of Chianti and a pizza. And it's also about the sunken bar in the fireside lounge, with the swivel-chairs on rollers. Who has those kinds of chairs anymore? That's a red-sauced-spaghetti-joint touch at its midcentury best.
The Latin King? It's all about owner Bob Tursi, who greets you at the door as if it's you—and only you—he's been waiting to see all night. It's about the triumvirate of service that is becoming less and less prevalent these days: The host (Tursi) overseeing the room, the server overseeing your table, and backwaiters (aka busboys) overseeing the finer details...
And it's about the food: On a recent visit, I had one of the best restaurant meals I've had in weeks: The Steak de Burgo (I happen to love this version) the Shrimp Angelo (big plump shrimp butterflied in the shell with nubbly bits of garlic in a rich butter sauce). For your side, insist on the potato croquettes—those globes of herbed mashed potatoes fried golden brown. And finish with the Tartuffo, raspberry gelato robed in dark chocolate—an upscale Dilly Bar without the stick.
A word of warning, however: If you love Noah's and/or Latin King as I do, do yourself another favor and do not try to change anyone's mind about these two restaurants. When I was The Des Moines Register's restaurant reviewer, I once took a couple of coastal transplants to Latin King to show them what I loved about it. My treat. We ordered my favorite dishes: Shrimp Angelo, Steak de Burgo, Chicken Spiedini, and the Penne Regine. All great dishes.
They told me that I wasn't doing my job if I ever gave the place better than two stars (which, in the old rating system, meant "pretty darn mediocre"). Why the low rating? My friends gave all the entrees an enthusiastic thumbs up, but they hated the salad that came with the meal. They thought the bread was too squishy.
Then they told me about how the bread and salad were so much better at a place they fell in love with in Rome.
Sigh. Let's just keep these two places to ourselves, shall we?