There's a little place not far from where we live in Davenport where we like to go to from time to time as a change of pace from the other restaurants we frequent in the area. I had been meaning to write about this place, but something inside kept telling me, "No! This is OUR place and I don't want other people to know about it!" But the place is now very popular with local residents and I thought the time is right to finally tell you about Zeke's Island Cafe.
Zeke's Island Cafe combines the culinary traditions of Caribbean and Pacific island cuisine into a paradise of food delight. The crossing of food cultures makes Zeke's one of the more interesting restaurants in the greater Quad City area. And the owners have a great back story as to how they got their little island cafe opened in the middle of the United States.
Jason Stewart was a Quad City native who grew up in Bettendorf. As a young kid, he was a tinkerer in the kitchen - he'd take boxes of macaroni and cheese and add things to doctor up the bland taste. To his own admission, some things worked, others didn't.
He was also a budding drummer when he was an early teen and he wanted to buy a set of drums. He took a job in the kitchen at the Davenport Country Club washing dishes. As he got more experience he started doing other jobs around the kitchen, eventually becoming a sous chef chopping vegetables into small pieces "because no one else wanted to do it" as he said in an interview on WVIK radio. He moved up to becoming a fry cook - mostly catfish filets - and gained more duties around the kitchen.
Outside the kitchen, Jason had an interest in photography and decided to apply to the Kansas City Art Institute after graduating from Bettendorf High School in 1990. He was accepted and on his way to Kansas City he began to think that maybe he had more fun working in the kitchen at the Davenport Country Club and maybe that's the profession he should pursue. He got to Kansas City to tell school officials, "Thanks, but no thanks." He headed back home to the Quad Cities.
He entered the culinary program at Scott Community College in the Quad Cities. He likened his cooking experiences to being a frustrated chemist. (I've always said that my playing around in the kitchen coming up with different takes on traditional recipes was because I was a frustrated chemist.) Chemistry didn't come easy for Jason - he dropped out of chemistry class three times in high school - but working with different food items in a kitchen intrigued him. He studied at Scott Community College for two semesters before he realized that the curriculum wasn't challenging enough for him.
Stewart went on to study culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI. He chose Johnson & Wales over the equally prestigious, but more well-known Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY primarily because of the more intense curriculum the culinary program offered. The dropout rate for freshmen was very high, but Jason found that he was much further along than many of his classmates due to his nearly five years of working in a kitchen prior to going to school in Rhode Island. Stewart got his degree in two years and garnered a 4.0 grade point in doing so.
Jason Stewart - now known as "Chef Stu" - came back to the Quad Cities and immediately became the assistant chef at the Davenport Country Club. However, when the Lady Luck Casino (now the Isle of Capri Casino) was getting ready to open in Bettendorf, he got on there during the time the Isle of Capri corporate executive chef was training the kitchen staff while the Lady Luck's executive kitchen staff was getting trained in Biloxi. Chef Stu liked the concept of working in a start up kitchen. Well, that was until the Lady Luck's executive chef and sous chefs came back from Biloxi to open the kitchen. Even though Stu liked the concept of a kitchen "team", he found that he didn't fit very well into the team that was assembled in the kitchen at the Lady Luck. He decided that he would be more of a "project" kind of guy in the future.
Chef Stu eventually married his now-wife Jessica and they went to Hawaii for their honeymoon. While on the islands they were disappointed in the various foods they tried. However, at the airport as they were waiting for their flight back to the mainland they tried a plate of nachos topped with kalua pork - the wonderful traditional Hawaiian pork served at luau's where they wrap the pork in banana leaves and cook it in a pit over hot rocks for hours. They were amazed that the best thing they tasted in Hawaii was at the airport bar.
Pictured right - Jason (Chef Stu) and Jessica Stewart. Photo courtesy Quad City Times.
Stu and Jessica decided they wanted to open their own restaurant and they found a building at the corner of E. Kimberly Road and Belle Ave. in an out building that was part of a deteriorating strip mall. (see map) The building had housed a number of restaurants over the years, the most recent was a Chinese drive-thru restaurant. The Stewarts opened a pasta restaurant that went nowhere. Stu admitted that he wasn't fully committed to the concept of the restaurant and they closed the doors in January of 2014. (I will admit, I went by it many times when it was a pasta place, but never went in.)
Stu and Jessica dreamed of sailing around the world, trying all different types of island cuisines. Then the idea came to them - why don't they open a restaurant that brings native island foods to the Quad Cities? About six weeks later, they opened Zeke's Island Cafe in place of the pasta restaurant.
For the first four months, the menu was pretty basic. The kalua pork nachos were the highlight of their menu and they dabbled with fish tacos and Jamaican jerk chicken. However, it wasn't until Rob and Geri Mafnas-Cruz wandered into the place that Stu and Jessica started on the path to authentic island cuisine. The Mafnas-Cruz family came from Guam and Geri eventually showed Stu many recipes that were staples on their home island. Eventually, Geri Mafnas-Cruz volunteered in the kitchen at Zeke's Island Cafe for three months while Stu learned and perfected many of the recipes provided by the family.
Soon thereafter, a family from Venezuela came to the restaurant and talked Stu into making some of their favorite foods. After awhile, Stu - still the inveterate tinkerer in the kitchen - began to mix some of the cultural offerings. Some of his traditionalist customers didn't like that he did it, but he didn't mind the heat he got. In fact, he found that many of the traditional island dishes that he originally offered were a melting pot of cultural foods from neighboring islands.
It turned out that a number of Pacific and Caribbean island natives live in the Quad Cities (many of whom go to the Palmer School of Chiropractic) and many of them would come in to try the cuisine. A few of them would help out the Stewarts by volunteering in the kitchen - their pay would be meals that they'd have at the end of their shift. Over the first few months of business, Stu had a whole team of volunteers - his team - that were helping him build his dream. Stu found that he liked to build a team - similar to the team he worked with years ago at the Davenport Country Club. As the restaurant became more popular - and profitable - Stu and Jessica were able to hire many of the volunteers as part-time team members.
The other interesting aspect is that Zeke's Island Cafe has garnered a following without the use of a web site, but entirely through social media and word of mouth. Last summer, they began to promote daily specials on their Facebook page - and that's how my wife initially found out about the place.
If we hit the traffic lights right, we are less than a three minute drive from home to Zeke's Island Cafe. The well-lit interior features some island decorations - fishnets, tropical plants and other island-themed ornaments and accessories give the place an island feel. Like us, the Stewarts hope to get back to Hawaii at some point. But their restaurant with the tropical decor will have to do for the time being.
The menu is on a chalkboard on the wall near the front counter and open kitchen. It changes based upon availability of foods and different things that Stu wants to try in the kitchen. For a few weeks Zeke's hasn't had any Facebook specials, much to the consternation of my wife. The Stewarts have been working with Kilkenny's Pub in downtown Davenport starting up a satellite location - Zeke's Island Hideaway - in the kitchen area of the pub. Stu promised my wife that once the satellite location gets up and going on its own he'll bring back the daily specials that she's so fond of. (They started up the Facebook daily specials again in early March.)
On this visit, I ended up ordering the tilapia fish tacos and a 1/2 pound side of peel and eat shrimp that I normally have coated with a zesty spicy seasoning. But Cindy protested that the shrimp was too spicy for her, so we got it plain that evening. My wife loves the pork nachos and we got some of them and she also got an order of the pork slider appetizers to go with the nachos. Zeke's Island Cafe is a BYOB place and I always bring in a couple bottles of the Big Wave Golden Ale from the Kona Brewing Co. in Hawaii. On this visit, Cindy had me bring along a bottle of the Lagunitas India Pale Ale for her to enjoy with her meal.
We found a seat in one of the booths along the east window of the restaurant. Jessica Stewart was seated nearby and greeted us as we walked by, she recognized us from the many visits we've had in the past. (It was getting to the point that Cindy had to stop going there as she was afraid she'd get burned out on Zeke's. Times when I would be on the road, she would go there so much for a quick meal when they had the daily specials.) And as always, island music from Hawaii or the Caribbean was playing in the background.
The peel and eat shrimp features medium sized steamed shrimp along with tubs of melted butter and shrimp sauce. I don't know what I like to dip the shrimp in more - the butter or the zesty sauce. I usually end up dipping a shrimp tail in both before eating it.
Their signature pork nachos come with tortilla chips topped with ample amounts of the pulled kalua pork, cilantro, chopped green onions and tomatoes, and drizzled with sour cream and a sweet barbecue sauce. The pork is very good - I'm amazed that they have such good kalua pork at Zeke's. It rivals the kalua pork that I get from time to time at Ono Kine Grindz in the Milwaukee area. (Click here to see the entry on Ono Kine Grindz.)
The fish tacos feature chunks of grilled tilapia topped with spicy mayo based sauce and covered with chopped tomatoes and cheese. I don't care for cheese all that much on fish tacos and I told Stu that later on when he came over to visit with us. I told him that it wasn't a deal breaker and I'd just order the without cheese in the future. One thing that Chef Stu is accommodating with is suggestions that he gets from his customers. He'll be the first to admit that he's not an authority on island cuisine and defers to many customers on ideas for possible menu items. But if you ask me, what he's got on the menu is pretty damned good.
Normally an appetizer, Cindy got a couple of the pork sliders that were topped with the sweet and zesty barbecue sauce and chopped green onions. The pork sliders were served on King's Hawaiian rolls. Like I said, I can't say enough about the pork they serve at Zeke's. Even without the barbecue sauce, I think the pulled kalua pork would be great on its own.
It was a typical visit to Zeke's Island Cafe for us. We lingered talking with Stu and enjoying the beers and the island music after we finished our food. Calling Zeke's Island Cafe an island-themed restaurant is like calling a place that puts up a flag of Ireland on the wall an Irish pub. Yeah, it's not quite the island paradise that one conjures up in their mind. But if you close your eyes as you're eating the food, you can almost imagine yourself sitting in a small Hawaiian or Caribbean cafe eating authentic island cuisine. The secret is definitely out - Zeke's Island Cafe has some excellent food at a great value.