Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Incredible Edible Iowa City

I last visited Iowa City six years ago. When I found out I had the opportunity to return, even though it was shortly after the devastating floods, I was thrilled. Iowa City is the ideal university town. Small enough to be safe, friendly and walkable, large enough to have a variety of shops and restaurants. As a bonus, it’s intellectually stimulating but not pretentious and has a GREAT selection of food.

On this visit, I stayed at a historic house, formerly belonging to a University President, located about a 15 minute walk from the center of town. The beautiful and gigantic house, which includes an elevator, is on the market for about $700,000 and can’t find a buyer. I can only imagine the sum it would fetch on either coast.

I love walking along the red brick streets lined by leafy green trees. I like the bright gold cupola of the central Historic Capital Building and the wonderful selection of shops and restaurants. There is a used bookstore on Linn Street that sells stamps as well as bottles of cold water for 25 cents. Another shop is meant for crafters. They have space to sew, cut and create as well as buy fresh baked cookies. The Java House Coffee shop lines the walls with portraits and offers dim lighting and lots of tables and armchairs for working. Prairie Lights Bookstore is one of the best independent bookshops in the country, with an unparalled periodicals sections.

Here are some of the highlights I found during my week there:

The town is easily accessible via a shuttle service (1-800-725-8460) that runs between the Eastern Iowa airport and Iowa city. The shuttle will wait for the last flight to arrive and they charge $65 round-trip.

Enjoy a relaxing massage or back facial (never heard of it? Try it) in a cave-like environment and pay bargain prices at La James (227 East Market; Brewery Square; Tel: 319-338-3926), a cosmetology school/spa. Skip the nail services on offer since the law in Iowa prevent cosmetologists from cutting nails.

Savor rich varieties of local ice cream (made in Moline) at Whiteys (112 East Washington St; Tel: 319-354-1200). This is where the locals go for a cone, choosing from the many flavors for a reasonable $2-5. The low-fat chocolate shake tastes fully fat.

Savor a gourmet burrito at Atlas World Grill (127 Iowa Ave; Tel: 319-341-7700). The sweet fruit salsa on the Jamaican chicken burrito is good. If you are one of those people who can’t eat a whole burrito, the lunch special, offering a half burrito with a side salad, is a good combo.

Enjoy top-notch barbeque – such as pulled pork with a sweet and spicy sauce – at The Pit Smokehouse (130 N Dubuque St, Iowa City - (319) 337-6653). Take-out, or sit at one of the few little tables inside. Prices are very reasonable.

Locals recommended the Linn Street Café to me. The ambience is very nice and the menu mouth-watering. I stopped by for lunch and got the grilled cheese, which I found only mediocre. It may be worth trying something more substantial. Look on the walls for books written by University of Iowa educated authors.

Devotay uses “local food, worldly flair” as its motto and the restaurant lives up to that, with creations as unusual as elk pastrami and trout mousse as well as worldy specialties like Spanish paella. They offer brunch on Sundays. It’s a fun plan to gather with friends.

Locals say Pagliai's Pizza (302 E. Bloomington, 351-5073: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily) makes the best pizza in Iowa. It’s fun to watch the pizza-makers in tall white hats twirl the dough in the large window.

Oasis is a little hole in the wall, specialized in affordable Middle-Eastern food – falafel, hummus and kebabs are among their offerings. Cheap prices, quick food and free wi-fi make this a popular choice.

One Twenty Six is a small, intimate restaurant with probably the best food around. It’s a good deal for lunch, where you can enjoy gourmet salads and sandwiches (the tuna salad and the steak sandwich are both amazing), using local, high-quality ingredients. The Monday night prix fixe dinner is a good way to sample the food and the wines. Only downstairs is the sometimes snooty service.

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