[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter coming back from World War II, my father owned a restaurant on the square in Jefferson, Iowa—one of the hundreds of small towns that dotted the nation-spanning Lincoln Highway, from Times Square to San Francisco.
My father gave up hash-slinging, as he called it, before I was born. But I’ve seen pictures of his place. Sunlight streams through tall windows; ceiling fans chase away summer’s heat. A soda-fountain counter lines one side, booths the other. Plenty of hooks invite people to hang their coats and stay awhile. To this day, when my aunt talks of the café’s fresh apricot pie, I can almost taste it.
For years, I sought this restaurant in every Iowa town I visited. And recently, on another stretch of the old Lincoln Highway, in another part of Iowa, I found it—a place true to its roots, serving food from surrounding farms. With its chrome-edged tables and brick walls, Matt Steigerwald’s Lincoln Cafe, in Mount Vernon, feels as if it had been swept up by a tornado circa 1952, then dropped back down just yesterday.
Steigerwald’s menu features mid-century café favorites like burgers, fries and BLTs. He assembles basic ingredients the way they used to be: A local butcher grinds the burger meat, fries are hand-cut on the spot, dairy products come from a nearby creamery, and, in the growing season, vegetables are sourced locally. If you order lemonade with any of the above, it’ll be fresh-squeezed. These all-American classics, costing under $8, beckon a host of hearty regulars.
However, because we live in 2012 and not 1952, and Steigerwald is a sophisticated, contemporary chef, his regulars often discover something unexpected to savor—an avocado mayonnaise on the BLT or Thai spices spiking a salad. Steigerwald reveals many more far-flung influences in his daily specials, chalked on a blackboard and priced closer to $30. These are the dishes that cram Mount Vernon’s main street with cars sporting out-of-state license plates. These are the dishes for which salivating pilgrims endure long waits.
Probably, the Lincoln Cafe’s gourmand-blessed status was inevitable. Steigerwald’s daily specials combine the rediscovered fresh-and-local ethos of our rural, self-sufficient forebears with today’s urbane craving for big, worldly flavors. Consider a couple of Steigerwald’s multicultural entrees: first, a grass-fed beef short rib with lemongrass rice noodles, asparagus puree, nuoc cham radish, and a Vietnamese herb salad. Second, roasted albacore tuna with barbecue red peas, sorghum mustard, rhubarb and crab slaw, red chile peanuts and country ham powder.
In the hands of lesser chefs, such ambitious, complex dishes slump into a grandiose muddle. But across two visits to the café, I reveled in the way most dishes sparkled with balance and precision. Desserts are equally dynamic and detailed, making it troublesome to choose between frozen pistachio-lime custard (served with star anise horchata, sherried pineapple and pistachio rice candy) and vanilla peaches with mesquite cake (accompanied by lemon-thyme ice cream and toasted almond mousse).
Steigerwald, whose wife is an English professor at Mount Vernon’s Cornell College, opened his café in 2001. Before moving to Iowa, this North Carolina native worked in Southern kitchens, including Durham’s renowned Magnolia Grill. Over the past decade, O: The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune have all praised the Lincoln Café. But Steigerwald doesn’t rely on variants of the meals that made his reputation. He continues to break new ground.
A few doors down from the café is Steigerwald’s Lincoln Wine Bar, where patrons can choose from a thoughtfully edited list of wine and craft beers while waiting for a table. This place spans the top floor of an old Main Street retail structure that, like the café, conveys a reassuring air of history. It’s the type of building where the town’s milliner might have plied her trade, making hats upstairs for her little shop downstairs.
True to form, Steigerwald snaps this location into the here and now, with sleek high tables, a zinc wine bar and a youthful crew. This past spring, Steigerwald installed a stone and brick wood-fired pizza oven, handcrafted in Naples, Italy, by renowned third-generation oven-builder Stefano Ferrara. The oven fires at between 700 and 900 degrees, turning out perfectly char-blistered, thin-crust pizzas in 90 to 120 seconds.
Recalling the spectrum of old/new flavors that typify his café, Steigerwald’s pizza toppings range from classic (such as the Margherita, with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil) to dashingly avant-garde. Try a pie with house-made coppa, soft egg and arugula—or one with laughing bird shrimp, chiles and scallions.
If your wait for a table in the café or wine bar reaches into the evening, just relax. Order a bottle of something you’ve never tried before. Talk to the friends you traveled with. Meet new ones. Or simply gaze out the windows and take in a stretch of the Lincoln Highway.
117 First St. W., Mount Vernon; 319.895.4041; foodisimportant.com
From 1997 to 2012, Wini Moranville wrote more than 600 restaurant reviews for The Des Moines Register. She currently produces a monthly wine column for Relish, a food magazine distributed through newspapers nationwide. In 2011, after spending stretches of the past 20 summers in France, she published “The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day”(Harvard Common Press). Find Moranville on Facebook, where she shares tips on Des Moines’ food and dining scene at All Things Food DSM—Wini Moranville. Or follow her blog at chezbonnefemme.com.
Robyn Schwab, of Robyn Photography in Lisbon, Iowa, usually takes pictures of weddings. As a result, her shots of the bustling Lincoln Cafe staff posed few challenges. Learn more about Schwab at robynphoto.com.
Though always a memorable indulgence, the Lincoln Café isn’t the only culinary jewel you can find off Iowa’s freeways. Detour down some side roads and try these four exemplary cafés.
After 25 years in Italy, local girl Lorraine Williams returned to this southern Iowa farming community and brightened the town square with a lively Italian restaurant. Her clients include farm boys taking their dates out on Saturday nights as well as Europhiles fondly remembering Venetian vacations amid the café’s ornate décor. Williams’ menu pleases everyone, with steaks and pork chops as well as artfully crafted Italian-American fare (meatballs, for instance, are homemade, and the chicken Parmesan tucks cage-free birds beneath a signature tomato sauce).
122 S. Iowa Ave., Washington
It takes daring to showcase kale and whole grains in a main-dish salad—and impressive talent to make said salad taste like more than standard-issue health food. On a recent visit, The Café’s kitchen pulled that off. Its kale salad sparkled, thanks to a wonderful grapefruit vinaigrette. And a bonus of beady beluga lentils added unexpected grace.
In a time when “fresh, local and seasonal” menus arrive punctuated with high prices, The Café brings vibrant, carefully sourced food to its tables at far better rates. Warm and jovial, this is the sort of place where you could energize any listless evening with a $10 chipotle pork pizza or an $18 duck breast with mole poblano and scarlet runner beans.
2616 Northridge Parkway, Ames
Long a mainstay in Omaha, this café and art gallery moved in late 2011 across the Missouri River to downtown Council Bluffs. You’ll find a savory, comforting mix of Southern, Cajun, Tex-Mex and Southwestern food in a space where contemporary art and tabletops shellacked with lurid ’70s pulp-fiction covers deftly funk up an old storefront. If you stop here for Sunday brunch on your way home from a weekend in Omaha, order the Dixie Scramble. Its thick disks of sausage arrive topped with an addictive substance called tomato butter.
157 W. Broadway, Council Bluffs
La Rana Bistro
Buying directly from farmers isn’t anything new for Joanie Sheahan, who owns this charming 40-seat restaurant with her husband, Mark Smeby. Thirty years ago, Sheahan moved to Decorah from Berkeley, Calif. Back then, she worked with Decorah’s Seed Savers Exchange, preserving and sharing the seeds of heirloom produce well before today’s foodies used “heirloom” and “vegetables” in the same sentence. A decade ago, Smeby and Sheahan opened their farm-to-table restaurant. Here, the names of growers and producers are featured prominently on the menu, in such dishes as Grass Run Farms Hanger Steak with Charred Tomato-Onion Salsa. Housed in a well-worn building complete with a creaky screen door, La Rana is an unadulterated delight.
120 Washington St., Decorah