There are moments when you’re eating, and you sigh with certainty that nothing has ever tasted so perfect. These moments can happen often in the Iowa City area, if you know how to look for them. Here’s a starter guide.
A Primal Need
There are days, often in winter, when the only thing that will quiet a hungry soul is a cheeseburger. Thankfully, there are cheeseburgers around to provide this balm. Go to Augusta (101 S. Augusta Ave., Oxford) and order a burger with blue cheese, and get a side of fried wild mushrooms. Put the mushrooms on the burger and squish the whole thing together; lick the dripping juice off your hands and arms.
Or, stay in town and go to George’s Buffet (312 E. Market St., Iowa City). Order a burger with everything, and leave it wrapped long enough that some of the cheese sticks to the waxed paper, and so that all the toppings—onions, pickles, mustard, ketchup and garlic pepper—melt together. Pick the melted cheese off the waxed paper and eat it, too. Chase it with a bourbon on the rocks. Feel like a human again.
A Personal Connection
Sometimes, if you go to a place often enough, and you establish a relationship with the staff, they’ll recommend special dishes or bring little treats from the kitchen.
At Cobble Hill (219 2nd St. S.E., Cedar Rapids), where the head chef was recently named a James Beard award semifinalist, sit at the bar overlooking the kitchen and ask the chefs for their recommendations (but only if they’re not too busy). You will end up with the best selection of food from the seasonally changing menu, like house-made braunschweiger with black garlic and “everything bagel” crumble; or an amuse-bouche of country pâté, dipped in corn dog batter and deep fried; or housemade gnocchi with braised short ribs and creme fraiche.
At Thai Spice (1210 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City), ask the server for a recommendation, and you may end up with yam woon sen, or silver noodle salad—a tangle of glass noodles tossed with tender shrimp, red pepper, cilantro and a gold mine of pickled garlic, and dressed with tangy fish sauce and lime—and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it for months.
At Sushiya (745 Community Dr. #A, North Liberty), learn that if you call in advance, you can experience the beauty of the broiled yellowtail collarbone—a dish that isn’t on the menu. Dig at the bone with chopsticks and fingers until all the succulent meat is stripped bare from the bone and your fingers are sticky with the fish’s savory juices. Crunch on fin tips like potato chips.
The Total Package
Sometimes, it’s the perfect combination of setting, scenery, company and food that elevates an experience. On the second and fourth Thursdays of each month throughout the summer, weather permitting, Geyer’s Oven (1259 Rohret Rd. S.W., Oxford) puts together a backyard pizza party, using local ingredients to craft rustic, delicious, thin-crust pizzas with an endlessly inventive cast of toppings.
Prices are donation-based, and party-goers bring their own beverages and sides, if they desire. The pizzas are fantastic, but what makes Geyer’s so special is the overall occasion: On any given Thursday you can find a crew of Iowa City graduate students with a 30-pack of PBR sharing pizza with area Mennonites, while children frolic with farm kittens among vibrant flowers. In describing it, Geyer’s seems too idyllic to be true, but it is true, and it is sublime.