By Heather Hoch
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Iowa Cafe, 5606 East McKellips, Mesa, 985-2022. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Breakfast and Lunch, Saturday, 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Think of the three most popular types of ethnic restaurants in town. They're from countries that support a tremendous variety of distinctive regional cuisines. And these regional variations are so well-known, they're even available in our small corner of the American desert.
Want Italian food? You can find places in the Valley that specialize in veal and risotto dishes from the north, seafood platters from the coast or mounds of pasta from the south.
Now, think about the USA. Sure, we have lots of regional specialties--New England chowders, Southern fried chicken, Kansas City barbecue, Chesapeake Bay crab cakes, Texas chili. But no one can seriously argue that any of these forms a part of some larger gastronomy. How could they, when you'd run through all their culinary combinations and permutations in about two days?
The question of regional American cuisine popped into my mind a few weeks ago, while we were hosting a French exchange student. To him, American food seemed completely undifferentiated--coast-to-coast chicken nuggets, hamburgers and pizza. Not an unreasonable deduction, I'd say.
But I wanted to convince him otherwise. So I took him to a couple of spots for local samples of what might pass for regional American cooking. Iowa Cafe's Midwestern fare and the Cajun dishes at Etouffee's Cafe would show him, I hoped, that our country had a little more culinary depth than the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices and McDonald's secret sauce.
Iowa's state motto is "Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain." But judging from the kind of food dished out at Iowa Cafe, I'd encourage legislators to enact a more descriptive, up-to-date motto. My suggestion: "If Something Nutritious Gets on Your Plate, We Apologize."
Even the word "Iowa" itself connotes the state's love affair with fat, cholesterol and sodium. I understand it's a Sioux term that translates as "Land of Big Thighs." Looking around at the cafe's regulars, I could tell that most of them hadn't been working off the calories consumed here squeezing the Thighmaster.
Run for the last decade or so by Iowa expatriates, the Iowa Cafe is a homey, charming shrine to the Hawkeye State. Directional signs note it's 1,428 miles from Mesa to Boone. A map of Iowa is stuck full of pushpins, indicating the hometowns of the cafe's customers. Mementos of the two leading universities, Iowa and Iowa State, line the walls. So do testimonials from satisfied clientele, including University of Iowa football coach Hayden Fry.
Iowa Cafe dishes out Midwestern farm fare, with a vengeance. You won't see any accent marks or foreign words on this menu. Nothing comes moistened in a tomato coulis or seasoned with an ancho chile cream sauce. You will see lots of meat and potatoes.
The six appetizers all have one thing in common, and it isn't an endorsement by the American Heart Association. Routinely palatable zucchini, mushrooms, cauliflower, onion rings, cheese balls and cheese sticks all come deep-fat fried.
Dinners include soup or salad. The broth made from white beans and ham seemed to me a little light on flavor, but a dash of pepper helped perk it up. And don't bother searching for arugula or radicchio in the salad--as you might expect, the greenery is 100 percent iceberg lettuce. But you do get some good homemade corn bread to soak up the ranch dressing.
The main dishes, most in the $6 to $7 range, come right from the farm kitchen. They're designed to fuel you up, not provide epicurean experiences.
Liver adorned with onions is your basic slab, intended strictly for fans of strong-flavored organ meat. The rib eye steak isn't the world's tenderest piece of beef, but it furnishes an appropriate dose of animal protein. The hamburger steak turned out to be just a regular bunless burger, thin and a bit rubbery.
You're best off with pork, which should be no surprise, since Iowa raises more hogs than any other state. The pork chop plate brings two tender, meaty chops. The hot pork sandwich, a Monday dinner special served on white bread (what else?) and buried in gravy, is probably the tastiest option.
You won't find polenta, rice or pasta among the side dishes. You get your basic choice of spuds: baked potato, institutional fries or unexceptional mashed potatoes. There's not a vegetable in sight. There are, however, incredibly tasty homemade dinner rolls, about a thousand times better than the mushy store-bought models other restaurants use.
Desserts, which feature fresh-baked pies, are simply scrumptious, and worth a trek out to the wilds of Mesa. The apple pie is thick and sweet, with a flaky, buttery crust. Pecan pie is stick-to-the-ribs satisfying. And you'll need about three cups of coffee to wash down the rich, intense chocolate peanut butter pie. (When I've fully recovered, I plan to return some morning for a breakfast centered on homemade pecan rolls, cinnamon rolls and jelly doughnuts.)