Iowa is boring. That’s what they tell you. That the food is bland, the people simple, the terrain flat. Let’s be honest: if you live in New York, Florida, Texas, California, or just about any state bigger than Iowa, that’s probably what you – or most of the people you know – think.
Well, I can confidently declare that all those assertions are false, especially with restaurants like La Calle in Cedar Falls spicing up the culinary scene.
La Calle – a “Latin American bistro” – is up on Cedar’s Fall’s College Hill, a small business district that caters to the students at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). There, you’ll find sub shops, sports bars, Chinese food, Indian food, a comic book store/hair salon/head shop, a hipster coffee shop, a hipster bar, and a hipster tattoo joint, all cloistered together within walking distance of the campus. It’s a fun place to hang out.
One afternoon, a guy at the comic book store/hair salon/head shop recommended that I eat at La Calle. He said the burgers were amazing, that I had to try it out.
Not one to doubt a local, I moseyed on over and ordered a hot dog, a “shuco guatemela”.
I wasn’t being a contrarian just for the sake of it. You have to understand. The hot dog, or pancho, was simply too good to pass up. Topped with cabbage, tomato, bacon, chorizo, shoestring fries, and guasacaca sauce, the shuco guatemala was a Midwestern power riff on a popular Guatemelan street food sensation that practically begged me to eat it. The guasacaca – a zesty Venezuelan take on guacamole – was metered out from a squeeze bottle, like ketchup. It was wonderful.
The finished product is a mind-blowing explosion of flavors, a indulgent heart attack on a bun that’s worth every calorie.
There’s a bun somewhere under all that. Come on, you know you want to lick those colors.
The mastermind behind it all? Redgie Blanco. You’ll probably see him at some point if you check in, probably behind the bar, back in the kitchen, or out in the small dining room talking to visitors, his unmistakable goatee framed by a very bald head. He’s from Venezuela, and decided to settle in Cedar Falls after attending UNI. It’s clear he’s on the cutting edge of what’s in at the moment, shopping at the farmer’s market and even trying out Tofurky dogs on his guests.
According to a cashier, though, it didn’t go over too hot.
“I had to sorta convince my friends to try it, but then they didn’t even know it wasn’t meat.”
Well, there you have it. In La Calle’s big feature in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (and wouldn’t you know it, they singled out the shuco guatemela, too), Blanco essentially said he wanted to take it easy on Cedar Falls, introducing more exotic touches to the menu over time.
Not that I fault him. At the Masala Grill, an Indian restaurant up the street, I basically got laughed out of the restaurant when I asked the server to make my dish spicy.
“Don’t worry, it already has spices in it,” he said as he rolled his eyes.
And then he rolled out a very mild dish onto my table. Which, at first glance, goes against what I said in the beginning. Wasn’t the food supposed to not be bland?
But, dear reader, it underscores a more subtle point (you’d almost think I orchestrated this). Iowa, you see, is at ground zero for the transformation of America. Here, traditional mainstream America collides with an increasingly international and diverse country at full speed, and the end result is – if nothing – uniquely Iowan.
I’d argue that La Calle is all the better for it.