So you think you know the Iowa City food scene?
With several new restaurants opening their doors of late, it may be time for you to reconsider your options. If you’re looking to impress the belly-dancing goddess from College Green you finally scored a date with, allow us to recommend a few of the dishes that inspire us.
These off-the-beaten-path offerings are guaranteed to stir the senses, arouse the taste buds, or at the very least provide an interesting conversation piece.
By Stephanie Catlett and Hieu Pham
1566 S Gilbert St. (at Stevens Drive)
This eatery makes no pretensions. Seating is on picnic chairs, the view is of SUVs rolling on pavement and platters are, well, Styrofoam plates. It does make, however, some of the most authentic Mexican street food in Iowa City. Tucked away along Gilbert Street, on the way to Sand Road, south of downtown, the taco truck (because it’s actually a truck) offers meats such as beef tongue (lengua) and beef cheek (cabesa) at a surprisingly low price ($1.50 a taco!). For the more adventurous, do try the Beef Tongue Taco; it is juicy and tender. When paired with onions, sprinkled with fresh lime and wrapped in warm corn tortilla, this is no prickly animal tongue, just bliss.
104 South Linn Street.
This is where to go if you really want to impress that girl. Order a bottle of Chianti and attempt to ask for the “Insalate di Polipo Seppie e Gamberi Nella Conchiglia di Pasta Sfoglia” in perfect Italian. If you order the Lasagna–with silky layers of pasta embracing small piles of béchamel and sweet Bolognese–or the Tiramisu (the mascarpone is smooth and custard-like), you’ll likely earn a kiss. The two-month old upscale restaurant serves “traditional and creative Italian,” according to Owner and Chef Gianluca Baroncini, who adds personal touches to the space such as the family crest, cast in copper plating that frames the entrance. Also, pastas here are made on-site, enhancing features such as Ravioli and Rigatoni and making a simple Linguine in Spicy Tomato Sauce into an amazing gastronomical experience.
121 Iowa Avenue.
If you’re looking for a less pish-posh take on Baroncini’s elegant setting, try the wide open, family-style atmosphere of Basta. The noodles here are also homemade, but we recommend starting your date night right with a dish of colorful olives; their firm, salty but not briny flavor makes them top competitors for best olives in Iowa City. Also, you probably won’t be able to resist your waiter’s entreaty to try the rich and spicy Stuffed Dates, an irresistible plateful of decadent sausage-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped sin. For the entrée, share a bowl of Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli in creamy sage butter sauce. The fresh sage is the ticket in this mellow little dish; it’s the kind of warm, cozy comfort-food that makes you want to get a little closer.
720 Pacha Parkway, North Liberty
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Located in a contrived little faketon–get it? A fake town?–in North Liberty, Azul distinguishes itself by focusing on the far-flung bounty of the sea. The salsa is spicy and the guacamole is fresh, but the cajun Mahi Mahi Tacos and the Seafood Burrito stand out as items you just won’t find anywhere else around. The burrito is large enough for two, which makes its $16.95 price point slightly less intimidating, and it’s stuffed to the gills (har har) with scallops, mahi mahi, shrimp, onions, peppers and garlic. The kicker, however, is that it’s smothered in a two delectable sauces: a mild jalapeno and a chipotle cream. The side-by-side pairing of these two unique sauces make an already good burrito party-in-your-mouth good.
100 South Linn Street
Asian cuisine can be tough to navigate, and anecdotes abound regarding the difficulty of getting any straight answers out of this waitstaff, but don’t let that stop you from trying the Hong-Kong-style food that Chili Yummy has to offer. The restaurant features hot pots or “Asian fondue” as some like to call it and dim sum, which could be considered “Chinese tapas.” Hot pots include a choice of several meat-based broths, the most popular being the Mandarin Duck Pot, in which customers check off the variety of meats, seafood and vegetables they would like to dunk into the soup that is presented on small electric burners. If you don’t feel like soup, dim sum offers sweet and savory delicacies in a tradition that is centuries old. Try Barbecue Pork Buns, which are slightly sweet, steamed bread with sweet barbecue pork inside. Or get the Shrimp Funn Roll, which are large steamed rice noodles rolled with shrimp and topped with splashes of soy sauce. Don’t feel like any of these foods? They also have Bubble Tea.
What to drink when you’re drinkin’
Basta: Amalfi Press
It’s officially berry time. Soon, we’ll be biking out to Lone Tree’s Sand Road Farm, picking blueberries, makin’ pie. Until then, get your berry fix with Basta’s Amalfi Press, a concoction of Limoncello, Stoli Blackberry, blackberry puree, lemon juice and mint. The drink is cool, sweet and refreshing, and the mint cuts through the sweet blackberry like a lone swimmer scissoring across a cool, green pool–a welcome diversion from the slushy blackberry base.
The Sanctuary: Bufala Negra
Nothing smells more like summer than fresh basil, and the Bufala Negra is an earthy homage to backyard gardens … a little dirty, a little bitey, a little hint of what’s under the surface. It’s a rather dark drink, but the basil and ginger keep it refreshing. Drinking balsamic vinegar takes a little getting used to, but when it’s made properly, the Sanctuary’s Bufala Negra is a well-balanced and bittersweet gem of a drink.
Motley Cow: Black Tea Spritzer
A sweet, fizzy little sparkler, this pretty cocktail is almost too easy to drink. Served with a lemon garnish, it’s the perfect way to start your evening out. Made with Prosecco, black tea syrup and lemon bitters, this seasonal offering is a fun twist on the classic iced-tea-on-a-hot-summer-day, and a welcome addition to The Motley Cow’s always-inventive drink menu.
The Red Avocado: Sangria
The deep scarlet color of The Red Avocado’s sangria is a telltale sign that it’s a drink for berry lovers. Seasonal fruits blend with the piquant flavors of red wine, leaving a wonderfully sweet and tart aftertaste.
Share: Moscow Mule
This cocktail with an unfortunate name gets the royal treatment at Share, the only place in town (that we can find) that presents the cocktail as it is traditionally served, in a shiny copper mug. Far from just an accessory, the mug keeps the drink refreshingly cold and accentuates the mixture of vodka, ginger beer and lime, as the subtle flavors dance on your tongue.
The morning after
So, things worked out? Let the good times continue to roll …
El Guapo, Banditos
Potatoes and huevos cooked your way, smothered in a revelation of a five-cheese (er, cinco-queso) sauce, sided with pico de gallo and guacamole. Add your choice of chorizo or bacon and this is the brunch your hungover tummy wakes up dreaming about.
Blueberry & Spinach Feta Scones, T Spoons
It’s hard to find a perfect scone, but this might be it. Baked by your friends at John’s Grocery, T Spoons offers the choice between blueberry–which is buttery and dense with a note of sweetness–or spinach and feta, the most aromatic with its blend of oregano and other Italian spices. I’d choose both!
Glazed Donuts, Bread Garden
Get up early if you can to catch these while they’re hot and before they’re all sold out. Sweet, warm and buttery-soft insides with a crunchy outer layer, just add coffee and it’s the perfect way to start the day, every day.
Ever craved the perfect sandwich/atmosphere combination, but felt stuck between a Quizno’s and a Which Wich? Here’s our line-up of some of Iowa City’s sandwich leaders:
Vietnamese Banh Mi, 126
Pate, prosciutto, Asian slaw on the crusty French loaf that 126 does so well.
Pear & Brie, Her Soup Kitchen
Sweet, crunchy pear meet smooth, earthy Brie. Commence to co-mingle in perfect domestic harmony. In my mouth.
Rueben, Mama’s Deli
Nutty rye, layers of slightly spicy pastrami, gooey Swiss cheese, and tangy Thousand Island dressing. Enough said.
Cashew on a Hot Tin Roof, New Pioneer
All right, you already know about this one, but how long has it been since you sat next to Ralston Creek and felt that hot, jalapeño-cashew spread smooged against your tongue? Too long, methinks.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, but we prefer ours in food form. Here’s hoping our little list will reignite your passion for the IC dining scene.
Left column photo credits, respectively: Bill Adams, Adrianne Behning, Adrianne Behning, Stephanie Catlett
Right column photo credit: Adrianne Behning
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