Food comes in many forms and can serve many purposes. It can be a multi-course work of art. It can be a tentative lunch at a coffee shop to forge a connection with a new friend or a home-cooked meal to show our love to our families. It can be purely utilitarian, like chunks of rotisserie chicken eaten standing over the sink after a long work day. Or it can be the answer to a specific sensory desire: when you don’t necessarily know what you want to eat but you have a very clear idea of what you want to taste. My favorite food sensations are saltiness and crunch and nothing delivers on that quite like fried bar food, my first and perhaps greatest restaurant love.
Fried food is nearly always tasty no matter where it comes from, but some places manage to elevate it above its rudimentary salty, crunchy, fatty-ness to a legitimate culinary experience. So for our most recent bar food foray, we ordered from Stella.
Stella opened in 2010, making it a longtime Iowa City establishment. Owned by Kevin Perez, who is also a co-owner of several other Iowa City restaurants including Short’s Burger and Shine and Hudson’s Tap, the restaurant is located a stone’s throw from Kinnick Stadium on Melrose Avenue. I’d been there before, but since it’s just outside my usual stomping grounds I hadn’t visited in years. I haven’t settled on a favorite bar food spot since moving to Johnson County, so it seemed like a good time to try them again.
Neither my partner Mike or I had eaten all day, so we went all out. We ordered the Cajun cheese curds, I got the fish and chips, he ordered the tenderloin and we added a salted caramel brownie to share. Our order was delivered about 40 minutes after we placed it, which is impressive considering the distance between the restaurant and our apartment.
The food checked all the desired boxes. First of all, the portions were huge, possibly the largest from anywhere we have yet ordered. Everything was a familiar classic but with little twists that made them unique to Stella. And perhaps most importantly, all the breaded items were still crisp, which is often not the case when fried food has to travel to its final destination.
The Cajun cheese curds were the perfect salty, crunchy, eat-it-by-the-handful snack. The chipotle ranch that accompanied them, which I greeted with a lack of enthusiasm when I read it on the menu, was absolutely delicious. We ate every last one.
Fish and chips is one of my favorite meals, so I’ve had it at countless places and Stella’s was among the best I’ve had. The fish was perfectly breaded with a John’s White Ale batter, the fish inside was flaky and moist, and the hand-cut fries were excellent. It also came with a side of sriracha tartar sauce. Tartar is not my favorite condiment, but the addition of sriracha balanced the sweetness and gave it a more interesting flavor.
I only got to try a bite of Mike’s tenderloin before he devoured it, but he attests that it’s the best one he’s had in his seven years of living in the area.
Last but not least was the brownie. I saved my half for breakfast because I love dessert in the morning with coffee. The brownie was also generously sized — half of it was about the size of a brownie I’d cut for myself. It came drenched in a caramel sauce and topped with sliced strawberries. The sauce was the standout — it was a richer, less-sweet version of caramel that had burnt sugar notes.
My pub fare research will continue, but Stella nailed all the most important details and I can’t wait to try their versions of my other favorites.
Presented by Chomp