The great story of Iowa in the 20th century was that of people migrating from the state’s small towns and rural areas to a few cities and suburbs. Small town’s lost their schools to the cult of consolidation, their farm hands to the industrialization of agriculture, their post offices to the inefficiency of bureaucracy, and their retail stores to the discounted prices in big city malls. A town’s café often became the last vestige of communal identity. People would gather for breakfast, lunch or dinner to keep in touch with their neighbors. Breakfast was served at all hours. Waitresses and cooks would chat up strangers as well as regulars. These cafés represented a gentler, nostalgic America.
In cities, such places became as rare as an old John Deere in a restaurant parking lot. Papa Kerns Café is such a gem. A chrome bar leaves little doubt that the place aspires to diner status. Daily specials are offered. Pop music from the 60’s through the 80’s played on my visits. Breakfast was served all day, in massive portions. Omelets were made with three eggs and served with toast and hash browns. Pancakes covered entire plates, as did an order of hash browns – the largest order I have ever seen. Bacon was sliced thickly. Plates of cavatelli and spaghetti with meatballs were piled high.
Three different gravies were made in house – a pork gravy for sausage and biscuits, a white gravy for chicken fried steak, and a lovely light brown gravy for meat loaf, hot beef and roast beef. The latter items were shaved off giant lean roasts, as tender as hot beef sandwiches can be. Breaded tenderloins and chicken fried steak were golden brown in fresh breading. Burgers were extra thick. Mashed potatoes were slightly lumpy in an old fashioned way. Meat loaf dinners joined the ubiquitous grilled cheese, hot dog and chicken fingers on the Children’s Menu.
Coffee and water glasses were constantly replenished, the latter always with fresh ice. Questions about the dishes were answered with samples rather the sentences. My waitress signed her first name on my check, with a thank you note. I didn’t mind once when I was told they were out of bacon only to see some served to other customers later on the same visit.
The latest food specialist in the Shops at Roosevelt also supplies an old fashioned flavor. Remember the home made ice cream sandwich? Before that genre was industrialized into conformity, different shops offered unique varieties of the treat. Thelma’s has revived the practice with vanilla ice cream (AE) packed between a pair of superb home made cookies. Their ice cream sandwiches have been touted by some of the most famous chef-restaurateurs in town. My spicy chocolate chip sandwich ($3) featured cayenne, and pre-industrial ingredients like sugar, flour, butter, eggs and chocolate.
Thelma’s is a rather well kept secret. It has a backdoor entrance in its strip mall with a sign reading “Pickups and deliveries only.” Don’t be put off, people inside were as friendly and welcoming as cookie makers should be.
Chef Dominic Iannarelli of Splash Seafood Bar & Grill won both the professional panel and people’s choice culinary awards at the Iowa Restaurant Association’s Dine Iowa Grand Tasting Gala. Splash also won its fifth straight Distinguished Restaurants of North America award. The only other Iowa restaurant to ever win one is 801 Steak & Chop House… Bianchi Boys’ Pizza & Pasta and Classic Frozen Custard both moved into a new building on Adventureland Dr. in Altoona.
Papa Kerns Café
2905 E. Hubble Blvd., 262-7692
Mon. – Sat. 7 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m. – 2 p.m.
855 42nd St., 343-7388
Mon. – Fri. 8a.m. – 4 p.m.