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Des Moines: A Journey into BBQ Ecstasy

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Ian Stout - Jeff Li
Column by Ian Stout

Every meat-loving Grinnellian needs to get away from the Dining Hall this school year as a favor to themselves. Whether it’s the scorching heat your parents barbequed with or that brilliant smile the cute carving station worker always gives you, there’s a reason you haven’t left the D-Hall for greater, medium-rare meats. When every meal is on a cycle, food becomes a chore – a time to fill yourself up and get enough energy to finish that overdue paper. But when you stand with a crab rangoon pizza slice in your hand, enough is enough. It’s time to take a barbecue road trip.
Since spending my summer in Des Moines, I’ve decided to dub it the culinary capital of Iowa. And in this capital sits the president: Jethro’s BBQ. As you walk in, a large sign shines with the display of a bedraggled hobo turning a wood-fired smoker, his pet pig standing awfully close to imminent doom. If that doesn’t convince you of the barbecue’s traditional roots, the rabbit hole only goes deeper. Posters and pictures on either side entertain during your wait, advertising the Emmenecker eating challenge, championed by the Emmenecker burger – a massive behemoth slopped with thick meats and buns to rival those of Nicki Minaj. My first impression of the restaurant was a skinny Caucasian woman pounding down this burger in four minutes while her opponent, a hefty trucker type, was still gulping down what he could with half his burger left. Needless to say, I didn’t end up choosing Buffalo Wild Wings that night. The show was already there, I just needed to order dinner.
The menu offers a whole collection of meats that can be mixed and matched. They all come with two sides. I found myself most tempted by the ribs thanks to the tantalizing descriptions my waitress gave of the preparation process: every rack is slow-cooked and smoked in a wood-fired process, the meat a top-grade pork taken right from Iowa’s farms. I had to have it. After ordering, my friend and I sat for 30 minutes before our waitress came back with two plates heaped with mountains of mixed meats. Slow-cooked meats, like any beautiful treasure, are worth waiting for. The ribs fell cleanly off the bone and were drizzled with Jethro’s tangy barbecue sauce. I was offered an array of different sauces to blend with the base coat. The corn bread was both moist and flavorful. The mac and cheese had an authentic, cooked-at-grandma’s house, seasoning that made my mouth water. The entire entrée was served on a plate larger than any I’d ever seen and marked the first time I’ve ever used a take-home box at a barbecue restaurant. There’s simply too much food to eat in one sitting and I don’t take that as a challenge. That’s what the Emmenecker Burger is there for. Neither my friend nor I had the stomach for it.
I’d highly recommend bringing a generous friend to Jethro’s. Sharing shouldn’t be optional when there are so many different entrées to try and there’s no way I could have passed up my friend’s offer to try his spicy wings. I ate two of his wings and fell into the age old crisis: should I have ordered a different meal? Were his wings superior in taste, the winner of the night’s barbecue showdown? No, I decided after taking another bite of my ribs. Both entrées were a unique, slow-cooked trove of happiness that made my taste buds sing. The winners that night were any who had chosen to eat at Jethro’s.
After both of us had our fill and came up for air, the conversation came naturally. We were both stuffed with heavy food and the restaurant felt welcoming and homey. The home-style, Midwest culture of the restaurant blended well with the satisfaction of good food.
If I haven’t convinced you to visit yet, hear this: full-course meals are under ten dollars. Broke college students, eat your heart out. I ordered a half rack of barbecue ribs with two sides of homemade corn bread and mac and cheese – still under ten dollars with the meal deals. That’s less than the Dining Hall charges for dinner, all served to you by smiling waitresses and waiters. I had a phenomenal time with my friend, and we still talk about visiting again.

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