LV Recommends: Notable restaurant newbies in Eastern Iowa

Opening a restaurant is no small feat, but opening your doors for the first time in the middle of a global pandemic is next level. These new spots are worthy of a gold star.

Alebrije, Iowa City — Zak Neumann / Little Village

Alebrije Restaurant

401 S Linn St, Iowa City
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Named for the brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures you’ll notice dotted throughout this new upscale Mexican restaurant, Alebrije occupies the corner space of the Hyatt Place hotel in Iowa City’s Riverfront Crossings district. This alluring two-level restaurant has an open airy feel with colorful artisan-made hammocks, handcrafted lanterns and string lights hung from the rafters, and even an indoor patio with a “living wall.” Dining in on a cold winter night, I forgot, however briefly, that I was in frigid Iowa. If only for a moment, I envisioned a warm-weather locale and dining al fresco.

Owner Fernando Weber made it his goal to create a modern dining experience that celebrated Mexico’s culinary traditions. The menu is certainly reflective of that, serving everything from tacos and burritos to Chamoy-laced Brussels sprouts, cactus salad and chicken almendrado mole. The restaurant proudly makes their own tortillas in-house from heirloom Mexican corn and Sonoran wheat and uses family recipes to prepare many of the dishes on the menu. The restaurant also offers a wide range of beverages for those looking to imbibe — everything from margaritas to micheladas and agua frescas.

El Gustito Pupuseria y Restaurant, Coralville — Zak Neumann / Little Village

El Gustito Pupuseria y Restaurant

2020 8th St, Coralville
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You might miss it if you’re not careful, as it’s tucked in a strip mall next to the Coralville Hy-Vee, but this hidden gem is likely to become a favorite. A handful of pupuserias have popped up in the area recently, but this spot in Coralville takes the cake. Let’s start with the pupusas: El Gustito offers them in a variety of flavors to satisfy vegetarians and carnivores alike. A lunch encounter at the restaurant allowed the opportunity to sample a few — revuelta, queso con loroco and queso con frijol — and while they all were savory, the highlight was far and away the loroco option. The subtly flavored loroco flower buds mingled perfectly with the melty cheese stuffed inside the griddled flatbread; adding a spoonful of the acidic curtida with every bite was heaven. At less than $3 a pop, you can easily leave feeling satisfied for less than a tenner, but you really should explore the rest of the menu. Other Salvadoran delights await: Plates of delectable fried chicken or whole tilapia and rellenos calling your name.

The Hip-stir, Marion — Zak Neumann / Little Village

The Hip-stir

1120 7th Ave, Marion
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This newcomer in Marion’s Uptown neighborhood offers diners eclectic, inspired fusion food and another reason to visit the oft-overshadowed community. Whether it requires a short drive from restaurant-laden Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, or a zip down the block, program your GPS to take you to The hip-stir. The menu is a creative culinary mashup of comfort foods and international dishes: fried bologna, Thai-inspired mussels and clams, kimchi fried chicken and pork belly steam buns have all made the cut.

Cocktails at The Hip-stir are also imaginative and well-crafted with a program backed by lead bartender Caleb Scales. The restaurant combines barrel booths, richly patterned wallpaper with geometric tile and stained glass lamps and panels with airplanes and canoes as considered design choices to reflect the restaurant’s personality. It’s like visiting that friend’s house who’s perpetually thrifting but magically manages to make everything work together to create a space that’s an extension of themselves. Visit for a cocktail and an appetizer and you’ll find it easy to let it turn into a second round and dinner.

Otmane Benjilany at O’s Grill, Cedar Rapids — Zak Neumann / Little Village

O’s Grill

3911 Center Point Rd NE, Cedar Rapids
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O’s Grill owner Otmane Benjilany moved to Iowa 15 years ago from Rabat, Morocco. His foodservice career here began in the dishroom of a Lone Star Steakhouse. From there, he opened a food cart selling kebabs in downtown Cedar Rapids (while also working a factory job), and soon, that cart became so popular he leveled up to a food truck. After six years, it was time to level up again. This time: a brick-and-mortar location. Opened in October 2021, this spacious new spot boasts an open kitchen, plenty of seating and delicious offerings.

The menu is focused by design, offering just gyros and gyro platters and a handful of sides, but don’t be mistaken. The small menu means your food is ready that much quicker and you can trust that anything and everything on the menu is good. The falafel here at O’s Grill is honestly some of the best falafel I’ve ever had. Each piece was delicately fried with a seriously perfect light, crunchy exterior surrounding a bright, herby flavor. The housemade tzatziki sauce is exceptional and is the perfect finishing touch for any gyro or platter. Be sure to order a piece of flaky, sweet baklava to round out your meal. Come to O’s hungry and you’ll be sure to leave happy.

Smash Juice Bar & Eatery

620 Pacha Pkwy #4, North Liberty
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Tina Whitney, a Washington state native and longtime health and fitness professional, found herself in North Liberty surrounded by a plethora of fast food, drive-throughs and pizza. Aching for fresh, healthy options like she was used to in Seattle, she decided to make one herself, opening a cold-pressed juice bar offering organic juices, sandwiches, salads and smoothies. The location, situated across from a McDonald’s and neighboring a local dance studio, is one Whitney hopes will act as a bit of a disruptor in the sea of fast-food options, capturing the attention of young dancers and turning them on to healthy food at a young age.

You’re sure to find something that speaks to you on the extensive juice menu. The Squeaky Clean, a zippy blend of beet, apple, ginger and lemon, is refreshing and bright with bold spice to balance the earthiness of the beets, but the Healthy Hippie is something even the youngest patron can get behind. It’s a classic blend of carrot, orange and pineapple juice — this one drinks like a familiar favorite but there’s just a hint of adventure in the form of turmeric to keep it exciting. For those looking for something a bit heartier, Smash also offers breakfast sandwiches and panini as well as salads and housemade soups.

The Webster, Iowa City — Zak Neumann / Little Village

The Webster

202 N Linn St, Iowa City
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The Webster is the shiniest new jewel in the crown that is Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood. Owned by a husband and wife team, Sam and Riene Gelman have brought luxury ingredients to the Midwestern table. The menu evolves with the seasons which, admittedly, is nothing groundbreaking these days, but the attention to quality ingredients, the nuanced layers of flavor built into each dish, the artful preparation and presentation of each menu item — it’s a thing of true beauty. The same attention to detail is on display in the interior of the restaurant as well. Stepping inside transports you somewhere far from Iowa City, yet it’s also somehow a place that feels like home: warm and inviting. Sleek leather booths and banquettes line the perimeter of the dining room, which has an open view of the kitchen, while the bar and lounge area offers a more intimate and cozy dining experience. When you visit, try the whole Wisconsin trout, housemade pasta or the chicken liver toast — they’re all sublime — or opt for a dry-aged steak if you’re really here for it. The side dishes, though limited, should not be overlooked (I’m looking at you Warm Nugget Potato Salad with Pella bologna), and the dessert menu, which remains fairly consistent throughout the seasons, is definitely something to save room for. Order the panna cotta. Just. Please.

This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.