Chow Town

Des Moines offers championship barbecue, great art, great eats

If Grant Wood’s sister, Nan, and his dentist, Dr. B.H. McKeeby, could visit today’s Des Moines, they would be hard-pressed to maintain the stoic daughter/father expression Wood asked of them when he painted his classic “American Gothic.”

They could start with a barbecue feast at Smokey D’s, which would surely put smiles on their faces.

At the new joint at 1210 Locust Street they could get smoked pulled chicken, sliced turkey, sliced brisket, burnt ends, and pulled pork with baked beans, coleslaw or other sides. Ribs are available on Wednesdays only.

At first bite, especially with the burnt ends, they would understand why Smokey D’s competition barbecue team won Grand Champion at this year’s American Royal World Series of Barbecue. The meat needs no sauce, but since three styles of Russ Frank’s are on the table as the house sauce, why not try it? A little bit of the sweet tomato base sauce is a perfect complement to the meat. The mild sauce is gluten-free.

Although my blog job here is about barbecue, I can’t overlook other Des Moines perks that put a smile on my face during a recent Friday and Saturday adventure to Iowa’s capital city. Besides Smokey D’s, our group of four partook of art, gourmet cuisine, novelty cuisine and a self-guided tour of the historic gold-domed capitol building.

The art on display at the Des Moines Art Center would make Grant Wood proud that his “Birthplace of Herbert Hoover” is part of the collection. The current special exhibition, “Gravity and Grace, Monumental Works by El Anatsui,” would resonate with him. Wood, like El Anatsui, made sculptures with found objects.

One I especially like is his “Lilies of the Alley,” a painted found objects bouquet in a clay pot. It is at home in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which houses the largest collection of Wood’s work.

El Anatsui has elevated the art of found objects to a stellar level. Photos aren’t allowed at the special exhibition, but his work is best seen in person anyway.

Before you see the exhibition in Des Moines, treat yourself to his huge piece, Dusasa I, installed in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Bloch lobby. Like most of the pieces on display in Des Moines, it is made entirely of metal liquor bottle tops and scraps, held together with pieces of copper wire, orchestrated for color by the artist.

I wish there were enough metal scraps from barbecue sauce bottles to inspire El Anatsui. Since most are made of plastic or glass, with black, white, red or yellow lids, I don’t see that happening. The exhibit will be in Des Moines until Feb. 9, 2014.

Some of the most remarkable non-barbecue cuisine I’ve ever enjoyed was prepared by Chef Sean Wilson at Proof on Locust, just down the street from Smokey D’s. It is near the Des Moines Art Center’s John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. If you book a reservation, arrive early enough to explore the sculpture garden. It’s a downtown gem.

Our burger hunger was amply satisfied at Zombie Burger Drink Lab. The hour wait “to be eated” allowed time to purchase a bottle of small batch Templeton Rye, available only in Iowa, and explore the state capitol building.

I’ll make a return trip to Des Moines to feast on a slab of Smokey D’s ribs and check out some other local barbecue joints. Servers, hotel staff and shop proprietors told me they get a lot of business from Kansas City. You’ll see why if you haven’t explored Des Moines lately.

Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’s Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on numerous food shows and writes for a variety of barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of a number of barbecue books, His most recent release book is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”

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