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Lincoln Cafe- Mt. Vernon, Iowa

Posted Apr 23 2012 12:00am

We headed up Interstate 35 last weekend, just as I did countless times before when I was living in Minneapolis and made frequent trips back home. However, this time when the highway forked left to send travelers up towards the Land of 10,000 Lakes, we stayed right and ventured onward through the farms and fields of eastern Iowa. Beautiful Midwestern expanse in spite of the coming storms, and a much needed respite for both of us as we took a relaxing journey that would include at least two brief stops prior to our highly anticipated dinner in Mt. Vernon that evening. My wife and I are people who would happily bypass The Louvre if we were forced to choose between it and…something like The Museum of the Inquisition. The heck with The Smithsonian, we would say…for us it’s all about the lesser known monuments, museums and displays of “outsider art”. Prior to ANY roadtrip we consult websites like RoadsideAmerica.com in order to determine if there is something worthy of venturing off the beaten path as we drive towards our destination. On the way to Mt. Vernon, there was the future home of Captain James T. Kirk in Riverside, the “cursed” Black Angel grave marker in Iowa City, and the crown jewel of this particular drive… L.J. Maasdam’s Wheel Art in Lynnville. Maasdam’s towering masterpiece was completed in 1994 when he was 90 years old, and its history includes endearing stories about his children re-welding some of the rusty wagon wheels at night because L.J. wasn’t a very good welder and they wanted to spare him any disappointment if he found out they were helping him. This is artwork well worth the ten minute drive off the main highway, and I believe this blog post will showcase the first pics using my fancy new camera….

I pulled my car up onto the small hill near the tower of wagon wheels. It is much bigger in person than one would think, and with a new camera and multiple lenses to play with, the potential for good photography would be endless….if I were a real photographer! The sky was overcast and there was a slight mist in the air that I had to contend with as I kept wiping my lens and moving around to find the best angles. Barren fields all around, out buildings off in the distance, a perfect backdrop for such a fascinating monument to folk art. My wife was back in the car waiting for me, and between my intense focus and the loud, gusting winds, it was a little bit of a surprise to realize someone had walked up to within fifteen feet of me without me noticing. There are the caricatures of farmers that exist on television and in print, and then there are actual farmers…I am familiar enough with both that I realized immediately the elderly man in the jeans, heavy workshirt, thick gloves and ballcap standing in front of me was a real farmer. After brief introductions and a handshake, he began to talk about the sculpture, and how even though he never knew L.J., he believed that it symbolized the hard facts of what it takes to make a life for oneself from the land.

Forging metal to turn the packed earth, making your vision worth all of the hard work, leaving behind a legacy that is about more than just one man….we spoke of those things for a bit, leaning up against the fence made from those wagon wheels, then he took off his right glove to accentuate one point. “A man does all of this with the only tools he truly owns; these hands”, he told me, “from the day you are born until the day you die, you always pray for the strength of your character to guide what you are building with these hands”. Much of what he said immediately rang true for me. Not that I have managed to always exhibit those traits, but anyone who knows me well and knows my story can attest to the fact that I really do try. “You keep an eye on the world around you”, he continued, “you keep your arms around the ones you love, and you keep it strong…THIS hand”, he said, putting the palm of his right hand three inches from my nose, “when all is said and done, son, you have got to keep your PIMP HAND strong!”.

Not knowing quite how I should react, I just calmly stood there, trusting the new direction his homily was taking. He never broke eye contact, but his stare did get a little wilder as he began to slowly step backward and kept repeating in a softer voice “your piiiiimp haaaand, keep your piiiiimp hand stroooong….”. For every two steps he moved backward, I took one, not wanting to alarm him, but all of a sudden he seemed to snap out of his trance, stared at my feet as they shuffled backward, looked back up at me, bared his teeth and hissed “PIMP HAND!” and kept saying it louder and louder while alternately slapping his face brutally hard (WITH his pimp hand). He did that at least twenty times as I continued backing up, afraid to just turn my back on him. Finally he stopped, dropped his head and took off his hat. He started scratching the top of his head, and a whining wail began coming up from somewhere deep inside him, and his body shook like he was readying for blast-off. As his whining turned into a shriek he slowly lifted his head and locked his eyes onto mine. At this point I was like “fuuuuuuuck THIS”, and turned around and bolted towards the car. For an old man, he was incredibly quick and I could hear him gaining on me. I started screaming at my wife “START THE CAR! STAAARRTT THE FUUUCKKIIINNNG CAAARRRRR!! START THE CAR! START THE CAR! START THE CAR!”. She was obviously startled, but I did hear the engine turn over. I was about to start screaming for her to get my pistol from the console as I ran like hell, but suddenly I stopped hearing the old farmer’s feet charging across the ground and heard instead what sounded like a single loud crack of a whip. I turned my head just enough in the same split second to see his body five feet in the air, parallel to the ground and facing straight downward, a taught length of chain holding his left ankle to some anchoring point just over the hill behind the sculpture. I quickly turned back to the car before he even hit the ground, but I did hear the thud and huge exhale of air from his lungs. Both of us safe, we drove on towards Mt. Vernon.

Soooo anyway, does anyone else remember Al Goldstein’s “Screw” Magazine?  Not the boring post-Goldstein version, but the old school 70’s and 80’s porn periodical classics.  How about Jim and Debbie Goad’s “Answer Me”?  When I think of whatever unique voice I could bring to the incredibly dense, generally repetitive and weirdly competitive world of food writing, I go back to those fine examples of visceral entertainment. I want to be THEM. The last thing I wrote with the uber-foodies yammering back and forth is really how I see elements of the social media drenched world of “artisanal” food…slow food at the speed of the internet. Now, I am not discounting someone’s personal history in their food community or their love for their favorite chef (and if I know you and you are reading this smarmy negativity, it sure as hell isn’t about YOU, you fucking egomaniac).  I know a lot of people who can cook, write or take photos, professionally or for fun, whom I totally respect.  The last thing I want to sound like is the sour grapes guy whining “Booo-hoooo! Now that EVERYONE does it it’s not cool anymore!”.  What I’m getting at is the increasing phenomenon where someone who is marketing or public relations savvy with almost no personal history with any aspect of the culture (not exclusive to food, obviously) can wake up one morning and reinvent themselves with such vigor and permanence that questioning the iffy provenance of their prefab calling could cause collateral damage within that culture.  Contrived expertise that fabricates a dependency upon it and breeds legions of succubi who wield their weapons from the safe confines of Yelp, Facebook and Twitter.  As the information on trends and the must-have reservations is disseminated more and more quickly, fond are the memories of a time when a chef or producer only had to deliver one handjob to one writer or critic to keep their world on its axis. Now, a billion blistered palms later, every personal universe of every armchair critic with an axe to grind has to be taken into account to slow the tide of potential bad reviews and miscommunications inherent to digital forums.  And it is the people who have their hands on the moon phases of that tide that worry me. In many ways, it’s not mine to judge…I’m not putting in the work to build the websites or consulting services, and I don’t make my living in a restaurant or on a farm.  Good people on both sides can benefit from this new relationship, no question.  I have no solid answers, I’m a guy with a prohibitively rambling blog who pushes his favorite restaurants on Facebook.  My speculation has to do with what I perceive as a cookie-cutter attempt to bring a corporate food and marketing angle into the food community and very aggressively pass it off as “locavorism”…. like Wal-Mart getting into the organic food game without bothering to mention that they bastardized the definition of “organic” in order to keep things cheap and the profit margins large.  I constantly wonder where the line is between my own overly protective, emotional investment in my most beloved institutions and being perceived as the same thing I fear most.  I guess the way I approach as much of the community as possible has to do with vetting….I am almost 100% a word of mouth customer.  I’m not a good target for bloggers, social media strategists, website developers or annoying hipsters, because my dollars and my energy usually only go towards a person, place or thing that I hear about firsthand from someone I trust. And once I try it and am convinced, I will ramble on about it incessantly….but even THAT is usually either relegated to this completely shill-proof blog or is lost in the avalanche of posts in the Facebook feeds of the whopping 150 people who even have access to this stuff.  I am loyal, and I think I’m a good guy to have on your side, and word of mouth has never done me wrong. Kind of like putting your money in your mattress. Fuck banks, and fuck purchases based on trending or shiny social engineering.  If I want a prime reservation, wheel of cheese, piece of meat or dried mushroom…I have a small but solid network of folks upon whom I can rely without fail, and they know they can count on me for the same type of favor.


So….word of mouth.  In my world it’s a very normal thing to drive for hours and spend the night in a different town just so you can try a new restaurant.  Especially when said restaurant is recommended by someone whose cooking and opinions on food I trust implicitly.  Lincoln Café got a big nod, so we picked a weekend, loaded up a care package with some of the best products KC has to offer, and lit out.  We love a nice roadtrip, so that works well with my desire to find great midwestern cuisine that exists outside the lineup of my local haunts.  Good food is good food, and one thing I’m hypersensitive about is when dickheads from much larger cities, or dickheads who ate in fucking Paris one time, come across like their personal calling is to always do that thing where they are polite but they still let you know they are being patronizing when they give any level of approval to someplace you recommend in flyover country.  I try to be even more hypersensitive to the fact that I could look like an even bigger asshole if I went from the whopping metropolis of Kansas City to an outlying hamlet and acted like I was doing anyone a favor.  When I check out new places based on what I hear from my friends, it is out of a genuine love for it. And if I take a care package with me, it has nothing to do one-upsmanship….sure, it is nice to show off your favorite producers, but it’s more about showing a level of hospitality that we midwesterners are famous for.  So when you’re showing the love to OTHER midwesterners, you have to ramp it up a bit because we are all just so damn friendly and generous.

Long story short, Lincoln Cafe has a specific combination of elements that make it pretty perfect.  First of all, Mt. Vernon is a beautiful little town where it seems like everyone walking down the street knows everyone else walking down the street.  There is an incredibly cool repurposed middle school building that houses everything from antique stores to a community center and even a martial arts studio….the perfect combination of old school small town charm along with a palpable youthful vibe that can be attributed to the nearby universities.  Okay, re-reading the last sentence made me want to kick my own ass, so I’ll just say that the cafe itself is like going to your favorite diner and your favorite Saturday night date spot combined. Jeans and a t-shirt or two hours of pimping yourself in a mirror, it’s all the same thing because it’s just a friendly place to be, and the food is the thing. And yes, I meant pimp, NOT primp, I constantly drop shit like that in my writing to fuck with people who live to play online editor on news sites.

Special app of the night- homemade cotechino sausage over Italian lentils w/spinach and preserved lemon. Great level of spice and fat, salt from the preserved lemon, earthiness of the lentils and sweet spinach....

After our stop at the wagon wheel sculpture, and the cemetery with the Black Angel, we still got into town earlier than we expected and strolled around for a bit.  I called Lincoln Café a few days earlier and tried not to sound like some kind of weirdo when I asked if there was a convenient time for me to stop in and take some pictures without getting in anyone’s way.  They were totally cool about it, after lunch service on Saturday sounded like the best plan, so we hung around and enjoyed the town.  To their credit, I will say that even though they officially “close” at 2pm, from what I could tell they were still seating people until then and nobody was getting the bum’s rush.  It’s little things like that I tend to notice and add to the list that comprises really great customer service. Saturday lunch pushing out closer to 3, dinner service starting up at 5 for a totally packed house….I respect that.

One of our surprise "extras" from the chef...housemade charcuterie sliced right, thin enough to melt really nice on your tongue. A fantastic chorizo on the right, with the perfect hit of funk to it, and if I remember correctly, a good and fatty Italian salami.

I have a legitimate reason to mention THE RIEGER in this post…not that I need one, so suck it.  Anyway, Howard told me about this place “up in Iowa” a couple of months ago and assured me they were great people who knew food.  He had cooked with them in 2010 in the Cochon 555 event in Des Moines, and had nothing but good things to say.  We met sous chef Andy that afternoon as I gave the spiel on the different items in the cooler I brought them.  Totally cool guy, knows his shit, does great charcuterie….man, if you could get him, Howard and Michael Beard to do one big charcuterie collaboriation/contest/orgy, that would surely be the event of the decade. Better include Alex Pope too…that goddamn coppa and all.  ANYWAY, Andy is cool, didn’t get to meet chef/owner Matt on this trip.  He walked through the place a few times during brunch, but I’m not the type of douche to go “Pardon me chef….I am from the metropolitan area of Kansas City, and even though you are obviously busy I want to bore your dick off for at least ten minutes on a Sunday when you probably would rather be anywhere else”.

Surprise course #2- homemade pasta with a braised pork shoulder ragu and fava beans. Very rich, just a killer because we each got a bowl of this...great texture to the pasta, favas are a smart addition to wedge something fresh and clean in there.

Foodwise, you can read the little blurbs under the photos, but the short story is- Lincoln Cafe is worth the trip. This is another element of the aforementioned perfection….a pretty standard permanent menu of chips and guac, awesome fries, hummus and pita, burgers, salads, etc…..all items ten bucks or less, and while we only tried the fries, the menu staples we did spy looked good. Especially those burgers. Then there are three entrée specials up on the board, an appetizer special and three desserts if I remember correctly.  You can go high end, low end, mix and match, whatever.  Including soup or salad with the entrees is a brilliant addition..how often do you see THAT these days, and also have it be of the highest quality? No liquor license, but you can bring in beer or wine for a flat $5 fee which is waived if you buy at least one bottle from their Wine Bar down the street (the fucking pizza there looks insane, definitely on the list to try next time).  They do take reservations now, and you are welcome to call ahead and have them put your name down (or just show up and try your luck), but I’d recommend a reservation because that place packs out.  We pulled up a minute or so before our 6pm table right as they were calling us to let us know our table was ready….very nice, mutually beneficial, addition to the service.

We had two out of the three nightly specials- this one was a very, very high quality piece of butter poached salmon with some very light gnocchi, asparagus, leeks and citrus bechamel....solid dish, both entrees contained proteins my wife named the best version of either she's ever had.

Lamb with green garlic and fava beans, falafel and meyer lemon ricotta....awesome amount of crisp sear and fat on the lamb, reminded me a lot of great Colorado lamb, but this was from Australia. Great dish at any restaurant, anywhere.

Speaking of the service….again, good combination of very friendly and casual mixed with a level of professionalism and detail that is required to get dishes of varying complexity fired and to your table in a seamless manner. Everyone was really sweet, and obviously into what the place is all about….that pride of ownership I never, ever shut up about.  In a packed and busy room, it was apparent that the only way to get everything done was for people to help each other as the need arose.  And in a room that size where it’s hard to hide, if there was any strife, competition or discord among the staff, then they were geniuses at covering it up and deserve even higher praise.

We pretty much had to order dessert even though they had almost killed us at this point...chocolate cake with different citrus and coconut sorbet. Well composed with good balance of sweet, rich and tart.

Most fun surprise dish of the night....the chef took some of the Shatto cotton candy milk we brought them and created a custard with it, accompanied with different elements like peanuts, apple sorbet and funnel cake...creating the perfect homage to fairground classics. Excellent dessert, and they sent two...excellent, but also brutal. We were shocked to be hungry again by breakfast.

Since we loved dinner enough to definitely make the trip again, we figured….why not stop in for brunch on Sunday before heading back to KC?  They open at 10am, and we walked right in and got a table. By the time we left, there was a decent sized crowd outside.  Again, there is a basic menu of some brunch items as well as many of the burgers, fries, etc.  The specials on the chalkboard included an omelette with spinach and pancetta as well as biscuits and gravy.  We got one of each, along with an order of some very good locally made breakfast sausage and an order of their spiced up potatoes.  Everything was very good, a few steps above your average smalltown diner breakfast for sure, but the major standout had to be the biscuits and gravy.  I’m the level of fiend that a dipshit like Guy Fieri pretends to be when it comes to B&G.  I don’t go throwing out compliments just because the people were nice to us…these things were awesome, definitely among the best I’ve ever had and I have had a LOT in my lifetime.  Perfect density and flavor to the biscuits, as well as ratio of sausage to gravy.  We weren’t going to get dessert, but when they offered us one with their compliments we went with the homemade lime bar with crème fraiche whipped cream.  Great spin on a classic, crazy-good crust.

 

So that is the story of our trip to Lincoln Cafe, with all of the usual extras that add a couple thousand words. It’s how I roll. You won’t hear about every restaurant I visit, you’ll generally only hear me talk about the ones I really like.  And when I really like a place I ramble on like a motherfucker…highly complimentary and usually appreciated by the objects of my affection, but jacked up enough to make me feel like I’m doing something a little different from your run of the mill Urbanspoon dickhead.  If it ever gets too fucked up even for people in the service industry to enjoy it, I may rethink my methodology.

Up next: I’m putting a lot of thought into a very specific style for an ongoing series of interviews.  I need to make a final decision about the actual interview questions, and approach enough people to guarantee I will have enough of them to sit back and watch the overall evolution. IF you are in the service industry and have any interest in taking part, be sure to reach out to me.  I guarantee it is nothing that will reflect badly on you…in fact, it probably won’t have any reflection on you at all.  AND this is actually real, not like any fake interview stuff I’ve done in the past. Anyway, there’s that. And other shit too, I’m sure.

All Content Copyrighted, 2008, 2012

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