In Des Moines on a recent trip to the capital city of Iowa, I was looking at possibly trying either one of a couple three different places down around the Court Avenue entertainment district of the city. I was talking to a friend earlier in the day and I asked him what he suggested for a place to eat. He said, "My wife and I think Jesse's Embers is the go-to place for food when we go out in Des Moines." Jesse's Embers! I hadn't eaten at Jesse's Embers in years! What a great idea! (Photo courtesy Roadfood.com)
Jesse's Embers is one of those old fashioned steak houses that has been around for, now, 50 years in 2013. The small building on Ingersoll Ave. has served hundreds - no, probably thousands - of local and national politicians and celebrities over the years. Jesse Roush opened the original location in 1963 and his son, Rick, took over the business later on. Rick Roush oversaw an expansion of Jesse's Embers with locations in both West Des Moines and Urbandale in the late 90's and into the early 21st century. But those locations didn't last long as they never captured the 60's feel of the original Jesse's Embers just west of downtown Des Moines. (see map)
In 2007, Rick Roush sold Jesse's Embers to a group headed by Thom Ruan, the son of transportation/banking icon John Ruan; Marty Scarpino, whose restaurant teeth were cut at his parents restaurant - Scarpino's - in suburban Windsor Heights; and Marty Scarpino's wife/partner, Deena Edelstein. Marty had been the long time bartender at Jesse's Embers before he took over as the managing partner of the place. (Sadly, Thom Ruan passed away earlier this year from complications from diabetes.)
One of the first things the new ownership group did to the building on Ingersoll Ave. was to freshen up the interior and exterior, giving a more updated look to the place. From the outside, Jesse's Embers looked somewhat like a bunker with no windows. Ruan, Scarpino and Edelstein added a couple windows to allow some natural light to filter in during the daytime. I read somewhere that Jesse Roush probably would have rolled over in this grave when the windows were put in. But the same cozy dining area with an open flame grill kitchen area along the wall and the small bar area stayed intact.
It was after 8 p.m. when I pulled into the parking lot behind Jesse's Embers and went in through the familiar back door. I emerged into the dining area just next to the big open flame grill that has cooked thousands of top quality steaks over the years. As the grill chef turned a steak, a large flame flared up from underneath.
I was greeted by the manager, who introduced himself as Joe. It turned out he was Marty Scarpino's brother and I asked if I could sit at the bar and get food. He said, "Absolutely! No problem at all!" He asked what my name was and he used it in conversation with me the rest of the evening. I immediately liked the guy. He was friendly, but not in a forced fashion.
He dropped off a menu and I ordered a beer to tide me over. Joe asked me, "I take it you've eaten with us before." I told him that I had but it had been years - probably over 12 years - since I last ate at this location. Joe said, "As you can see, we've spruced up the place a bit since my brother took over about six years ago. But we still offer the same prime aged steaks that you had on your last visit all those years ago." Gee, what a coincidence! I was looking to get a steak that evening!
And they have a number of steaks on their menu. Their signature steak - the Embers Special - is a 12 oz. prime sirloin cut. They have the Yankee's New York strip steak - a 16 ounce center cut steak that sounded great to me. In addition to steaks, they have Iowa pork chops, smoked baby back ribs, grilled chicken, and a number of seafood items on the menu. My buddy was telling me that Jesse's Embers also has a great burger - the Emberburger - that he likes to get during lunch from time to time.
I ended up ordering a filet - rare. I had my choice of French fries or pasta salad, but for an upcharge I could get cottage fries, onion rings or a baked potato. For some unknown reason, I ordered the cottage fries. Later on in the evening, someone sitting down the bar got an order of onion rings as an appetizer. When I saw them, I suddenly remembered how good they were at Jesse's Embers.
A house salad came with my meal and I had asked for Jesse's Embers homemade garlic dressing to come with it. Large housemade croutons sat on top of the salad. The garlic dressing got your attention, but wasn't overpowering in taste. My wife is a garlic dressing nut and she would have loved the dressing at Jesse's Embers.
My steak came out after I finished my salad and it was a robust piece of beef wrapped in bacon. Easily 2 1/2 to 3 inches thick, the steak was cooked to what I would call "rare plus", more to the medium rare side than to the rare side of temperature. But it wasn't a deal breaker by my interpretation of what is and isn't rare. The knife easily cut through the steak and the flavor was - well, I asked myself after about the third bite why the hell I hadn't been back into the original Jesse's Embers for so long. The taste was simply excellent. It had a nice charred outer shell to the meat - the steak was so thick that it required some charring from the searing high temperatures just to get it rare. The juices were sealed in and the toasted bread underneath the steak soaked up more juices with each cut. It was a fabulous steak.
After I finished, Joe Scarpino came over and said, "So, is it going to be another 12 years until you get back in here?" God, I hope not! I forgot how underrated and how much of a great value Jesse's Embers really is. My large filet with the upcharge for the cottage fries and a salad came to $27.95. I've had steaks that were smaller, more high priced and didn't taste as good as the one I had at Jesse's Embers. The charming ambiance of the place is still there after 50 years. If you're ever in Des Moines and looking for a good steak, I cannot recommend any place more highly than Jesse's Embers in terms of quality and value.