Years ago, I used to call on a stereo shop in the Campustown (aka Dog Town to some of the locals) area of Ames, right next to Iowa State University. There was a small barbecue place not far from the store ran by an old man by the name of George Battle - Battle's Barbecue. It was more of a hole-in-the-wall place but George had great barbecue. I remember Battle's Barbecue was always compared to another barbecue place in Ames called Hickory Park. I really liked Battle's Barbecue, but had never tried Hickory Park before. Since my blog has taken off with the number of readers I get on a daily basis, a number of people in Central Iowa have told me about Hickory Park in Ames. My wife even ate there when she was in Ames for meetings last year. I've heard both ways - some loved the place, others didn't think much of it. I was driving between the Twin Cities and Des Moines recently and decided to stop in and get some lunch at Hickory Park just to see what others were talking about.
I'd known about Hickory Park for a number of years, considering they've been in business since 1970. It was in a small building on East Lincoln Way that Dave Wheelock opened his first barbecue place. Winning over the locals with his St. Louis/Kansas City-style barbecue, it became apparent that he needed a larger space.
At the start of 1982, Hickory Park moved to a larger location on SE 16th St. in Ames. Wheelock was able to more than triple the number of patrons he was able to seat at one time to nearly 200 people. 15 years later, Hickory Park moved to its present day location on S. Duff, one of the main drags in Ames (see map). It's large building with equally large parking lot is easy to find for anyone coming north off of Highway 30.
Hickory Park cooks their meats in a special grill oven that combines an open flame with convection heat, then they pot braise their meats, glazing the meat with barbecue sauce, then putting it on the grill again to finish it off. That is certainly an interesting way of barbecuing their meat and one that some barbecue snobs turn up their nose at. But it if tastes good, like some people think it does, why not do it that way? I had to find out for myself.
I got into the restaurant around 1:30 and there were a number of people standing around. I went to the hostess stand and told her it was just me. She said, "I can seat you right away."
As we walked back into the large dining area, I asked the hostess, "Weren't those people back there ahead of me?"
She said, "Yeah, but they're two large parties and they're waiting for a large table to open up. I can get you to a small table no problem."
She sat me down along the west wall of the restaurant with the windows looking out toward S. Duff Ave. The dining area was huge, segmented into smaller dining rooms that seemed to have a different motif in each area. There was an area that had an old 1890's type of decor, while the dining area I was seated in was sort of rustic with a number of old signs and antique lights hanging from the ceiling. Even at 1:30 in the afternoon, I would say the place was well over half full.
She gave me a menu to look over and the first thing I noticed was that it wasn't just barbecue they did at Hickory Park, but they had nearly a dozen burgers to choose from, as well as a like number of specialty sandwiches, salads, deli sandwiches and entrees including a number of smoked meat platters. I get a little worried when a restaurant offers so many things to eat. Most of the times they do all of them good, but it's generally not outstanding.
But I was there for the barbecue and I wanted to try a little bit of two or three of their meats. They had a combination dinner that featured sliced beef brisket, sliced pork and sliced turkey for $7.25. Two sides came with that and I got their cole slaw and their baked beans. I got a beer to go along with the barbecue.
My waitress brought out my meal less than 10 minutes after I ordered it (no wonder the place is so busy at lunch time). There were three large slices of both pork and beef and a large slice of smoked turkey. I used some of the barbecue sauce that was sweet, a little tangy and had a little smoky taste to it. The sauce was OK, not the best I've had, but just OK.
The three meats were all thickly sliced for barbecue. They weren't as tender as I would have liked it to be, but they were sort of flavorful. The beef brisket had a nice smoke ring around the outer edge and out of the three it was the most tender.
The pork was good, but not outstanding. I couldn't tell if they used a rub on the outer layer of the pork, but it had a slightly smoky flavor.
I usually don't get smoked turkey (or chicken, or that matter) when I go to a barbecue place, but this was not bad. Turkey is usually dry and while this was far from moist, it wasn't overly dried out and overcooked like I've found at other places.
The beans were pedestrian, but livened up a bit when I added some more barbecue sauce. And the cole slaw was rather bland. I just had a couple small bites and gave up.
The waitress came back around to see how I was doing and I told her that I was full. She said, "No room for any ice cream?" Nope, not this time. It turns out that another big draw for Hickory Park is their old fashioned ice cream parlor that features an extensive menu of malts and shakes, splits and parfaits, and sodas and floats. They have over a dozen different types of ice cream to choose from at Hickory Park and it appeared that a number of adults and youngsters at the place were enjoying their desserts.
But the meat portions that I got on my plate were a great value for $7.25. I was certainly stuffed by the time I finished off the brisket, then the pork, then made a dent in the large slab of turkey. While I can't say that Hickory Park was the best barbecue I've ever had, it's not bad at all. The beans were just all right, the cole slaw was "eh!", and the sauce was serviceable and did it's part in help with the overall taste of the meat. But even though the food was a great value at Hickory Park, I couldn't help but wonder if Battle's Barbecue is still in business.