Carlos and Carmen Legaspi of La Reyna in Iowa City won Best Ethnic Food and Best Unsung Restaurant for their authentic array of Mexican dishes made fresh from family recipes.
WHO DOESN’T LOVE food—especially if someone else does the prepping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up! Especially when meals are made from scratch, use local ingredients, and are cooked with care and devotion to bringing out the best in each dish. In our 6th Annual Regional Restaurant Contest, our readers voted for the eateries that have won their hearts by doing just that. Read on to see who won top honors in each category, then turn to page 15 to see what memorable restaurant tales our readers sent in.
BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH
Washington (319) 653-4012
We Southeastern Iowans take our brunching pretty seriously. What better way to end a weekend than with good friends, great coffee, and scrumptious food? That’s why winning this category is quite an honor, and this year, Café Dodici takes the title!
It’s worth the drive to Washington, Iowa, to sample some of the region’s best eats—from French toast topped with blueberry compote to prosciutto, mozzarella, and arugula omelets. Readers raved about Dodici’s “exceptional food, service, and atmosphere,” namely their “off the charts” Eggs Benedict and fabulous pastries and croissants.
One voter said going to Dodici was “always a special experience,” and another added that “the owners are very personable; they treat you like friends and always add an extra layer of joy to your dining experience.”
• “Delightful atmosphere, delicious food.”
• “Excellent menu choices with friendly staff and patron interactions.”
• “Fabulous—doubt there is better anywhere!”
Fairfield’s Café Paradiso came in a close second, boasting “amazing herb roasted potatoes,” “the best omelets and pancakes to be had,” and, of course, “the best coffee in America.” Paradiso fans love the new location on the town square, citing its “great ambiance”—“definitely made for a lazy Sunday!”
Also receiving accolades was Oxford’s Augusta, where you can find “just good old down-home cooking with a great atmosphere.” Augusta’s specialty? “Crabcakes Benedict with three sides—amazing!” Readers loved the hearty portions and unique charm of Augusta, leading one diner to proclaim, “So much food. So little stomach.”
Honorable mentions go to Iowa City’s Lou Henri’s and Motley Cow Café. Fans of Lou Henri’s love the “slow, relaxed atmosphere” and “great food all around.” One Motley Cow diner explained that “though there are churches across the street, this is heaven on a Sunday morning.”
BEST RECESSION EATS
Iowa City (319) 358-7342
What could be better than falafels made fresh daily and served with homemade tahini sauce and hummus? Oasis Falafel’s inexpensive culinary offerings leave our readers’ tummies and wallets in a state of bliss. One reader calls it “the best cheap food in town.” Another gets a little more poetic: “Oh falafel, how I love thee. . . .” It seems clear that if you want frugal dining that will fill your tastebuds with joy, Oasis has what you need.
• “Lunch under $5 can’t be beat.”
• “Oasis has the best falafel in town and what has to be the best hummus in the state.”
• “It fills you right up.”
Iowa Source readers love the fresh and flavorful food at the Noodle House, on the Fairfield square: “Such tasty food, it’s worth so much more than what they price it at.” Voters also can’t get enough of Cafe Dodici. Whether you are grabbing a sandwich and some soup at the Dodici Shop, or sitting down for a meal in the restaurant, there is something delicious for every budget. Looking for cheap eats? Forget the one-dollar menu; at Augusta, in Oxford, they make their award-winning food from scratch and “you pay the same as if you went to a silly chain restaurant.”
BEST ETHNIC FOOD
Iowa City (319) 358-8182
Out of a myriad of wonderful international food offerings in the region, La Reyna Supermarket and Taqueria of Iowa City won the most votes from our adventurous foodies! They gushed over La Reyna’s “to die for” pico de gallo, guacamole, and margaritas, and called the salsa and tamales “unbelievable.” Many voters raved about owners Carmen and Carlos Legaspi’s authentic Mexican dishes, reasonable prices, and “great service.” One reader said, “I grew up in Mexico, and this is the closest you’ll find between here and Chicago.” Congrats to our new winner, wowing our diners with their “no frills . . . but fantastic food” approach!
Café Dodici in Washington took the runner-up position, claiming compliments like “the very best Italian food in the area” and “I have never had anything I didn’t like!” Readers love Dodici’s “absolutely authentic Italian” fine wine, fresh pasta, and “out-of-sight duck,” saying that Dodici’s selections, service, and atmosphere “cannot be beat!” One dreamy voter expressed, “You’d think you were somewhere in Tuscany!”
Next in the rankings was Iowa City’s Oasis Falafel. Offering delicious falafels made fresh daily, as well as Mediterranean staples like babba ghanoush, tabbouleh, and kebabs, this restaurant gets a comment that sums it all up: “Yummm!”
Also receiving mentions were Iowa City’s Thai Spice and Fairfield’s India Café. Thai Spice’s vast menu offers delicious curries, salads, and stir-fry dishes to satisfy any eater. One voter said, “the food is great, the prices reasonable, and the atmosphere is nice.” India Café fans “love the variety” and praise the restaurant’s “consistent quality” and “tasty buffet.”
BEST LOCAL FOOD
Iowa City, (319) 354-1001
Our locavore readers are devoted to dining at Devotay. They love the fact that the “fresh, innovative, and soul-satisfying” food on their plate is supporting the farmers in their community. As one voter put it, “They not only talk the talk of eating locally grown, they walk the walk.” Even the farmers can’t say enough good things about this restaurant: “As a local producer, Devotay is very easy to work with.”
At Devotay in Iowa City, Sous Chef Dan Knowles (left) and Executive Chef Kevin Butler (right) search out the best local ingredients for their seasonal menu.
• “Slow food with a commitment to the locavore.”
• “My mouth is watering just thinking about it.”
“My favorite restaurant. Great food, local ingredients whenever possible.”
Other restaurants that are walking the locavore walk include Café Dodici, where everything is made from “fresh, wholesome, organic ingredients . . . nothing out of the can here.” Eating at New Pioneer Co-op, in Iowa City and Coralville, is always, “healthy, local, ethical, and delicious.” At Revelations in Fairfield, eating local is easy and delicious with their local spring-greens salads and sandwiches made on locally baked bread, made from locally grown grains. In Iowa City local farms are well represented on the menu at Motley Cow Café, and at the Red Avocado, where local veggies and grains are highlighted regularly.
BEST SPECIAL-OCCASION DINING
Washington (319) 653-4012
Special events—birthdays, graduations, engagements, anniversaries—call for special dining destinations. These Iowa restaurants go above and beyond in creating memorable experiences for their visitors, whether in atmosphere, fine food selection, impeccable service, or all of the above!
This year’s winner is Café Dodici, where readers compare dining in to “being transported to Europe.” One voter mused, “There is no finer spot for an evening that’s sure to be special in every way than Dodici’s.” Others remarked on the “romantic atmosphere,” “ambience of a big city, service of a small town,” and “always great food.”
Always a reliable choice for intimate outings, Dodici inspires comments like this: “We just enjoyed another Valentine dinner with Dodici. It was wonderful, as always. We have also celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with them. Superb!”
• “Can’t find a better date place this side of Chicago.”
• “Love the store they have added. Very authentic food due to the travels of the owner.”
• “One of the few places I can get all my fave menu items: filet mignon, creme brulée, and tiramisu.”
Receiving the second most votes was Iowa City’s Devotay, where the special atmosphere and delicious food (fresh ingredients and tapas galore!) inspire sentimental affairs. “This is where we went on the night my husband and I were engaged,” one reader revealed. “Very romantic and tasty!”
Also high on the list was Fairfield’s Top of the Rock Grille, which boasts a “hip atmosphere, yummy food, and good drinks.” The “gorgeous dining room” with “beautiful décor” offers the perfect venue for a special night out, and with entrees that are “sooo delicious,” you’re sure to impress that special someone with your restaurant choice.
Next in line was Augusta, the amazing New Orleans transplant in Oxford, with their “great steaks and great ambience.” “Whether there are two of us or twenty, they find a spot and their menu is versatile enough to make everyone happy,” one reader proclaims. Another says it’s “so fun to have a family gathering because they are a family and act like you are part of theirs.”
Last but not least, readers praised Iowa City’s Motley Cow Café for its “inventive, fresh, gourmet local fare.” Voters loved that there’s “always something new” at Motley Cow, and the cozy, intimate space is perfect for special occasions.
BEST WORKDAY LUNCH
New Pioneer Co-op
Iowa City (319) 338-9441 andCoralville (319) 358-5513
If you’re looking for a quick and delicious lunch to fuel your workday afternoon, odds are that the New Pioneer Co-op has what you’re craving. Whether you’re a vegan or a carnivore, New Pi’s amazing variety of soups, sandwiches, hot and cold dishes, desserts, and fresh baked breads will “fill you up with great taste, and no guilt.” So next time lunch rolls around, head on over to the Co-op for one of the “best and most creative sandwiches in town.”
• “Absolutely the healthiest grab-and-go in town.”
• “New Pi can fill every hunger void.”
• “Leave with a great cup of locally roasted coffee and perhaps the best chocolate chip cookie in town . . . the vegan one.”
• “Cashew on a Hot Tin Roof sandwich is the best.”
Voters love being able to order their lunch from Revelations online. The “tasty soups, sandwiches, and salads, not to mention the recent specials that the new kitchen manager has been whipping up,” make this Fairfield hotspot the perfect place for a workday lunch. In Washington, the fresh food and quick and friendly service make lunch at Dodici Shop a must for many readers. And for other workday lunchers, Café Paradiso in Fairfield is “the best coffee shop and restaurant in the universe!”
Fairfield (641) 472-0856
Apparently, the patrons of Café Paradiso travel a lot. One voter crooned that Paradiso’s brews are “the best coffee outside of Seattle.” Another vowed that their java is “the best in the world, and I’ve lived in Italy!” And speaking of traveling, Cafe Paradiso recently moved to a new corner location on the Fairfield square, complete with stage for the impressive roster of local and national musicians they host.
• “One cup and you are spoiled for life!”
• “The best cappuccino in the world . . . I’m pretty sure.”
• “Just the smell of the freshly ground espresso beans is enough to put me on cloud nine. And I’m forever grateful for the amazing musical acts they bring to town.”
• “Coffee becomes food at the Café!”
Exceptional staff and skilled baristas continue to draw crowds to Java House’s seven locations in Iowa City. Plus, the affable clientele can’t be beat. “This is where you go if you thoroughly enjoy coffee,” said one voter. “If reading isn’t your thing, strike up a conversation with one of the academics sitting next to you or the friendly lady who is crocheting a scarf.”
At the Dodici Shop in Washington, next door to the renowned Café Dodici, homemade scones and biscotti draw as many raves as the “finest coffee and espresso. ”
BEST UNSUNG RESTAURANT
Iowa City (319) 358-8182
If you’re craving freshly prepared, authentic Mexican food, then head straight for La Reyna—if you can find it! “My location is not very visible,” admits the always charming Carmen Legaspi, who with her husband, Carlos, owns the restaurant/grocery store on 1937 Keokuk Street in Iowa City. Those who do find La Reyna sing its praises—loudly. Homemade pico de gallo, vibrant guacamole, savory enchiladas, tasty tacos, fresh tamales—all made from scratch from family recipes.
“My food is not commercial,” Carmen says. “We like people to enjoy and comment about the food—this is the most important for us, that it’s good and authentic and fresh.”
Traditionally, lard features prominently in Mexican food, and La Reyna is no exception. Carmen, eager to please her vegetarian customers, is constantly introducing new non-meat dishes, including the popular Rajas Con Queso, made fresh with poblano peppers.
• “Unlike any other Mexican food in a town full of Americanized Mexican food.”
• “From the atmosphere, to the people, to the food, this is as authentic, family-owned as you will ever get.”
• “Best salsa we’ve ever had; if you haven’t tried it, you are missing out (Pico De Gallo)”
• “Carmen’s tamales are to die for—they have vegetarian tamales, for crying out loud.”
Relatively new (opened October 2009) but quickly gaining popularity, the Iowa City eatery Her Soup Kitchen focuses on healthy, seasonal dishes that are exceptionally tasty—yet still affordable. Managed primarily by Barb Farnsworth and her son, Jason, Her Soup Kitchen also lists Barb’s husband, Dick, and daughter, Krista, as part of the culinary team. One voter gushed, “there are so many options and the quality is amazing” and another called it “our best-kept new secret for divine food.”
Trusty Augusta! Not exactly an unsung restaurant, as they appeared on the cover of the March 2009 Source, but perhaps not enough of you have made the effort to drive to Oxford, Iowa? “It’s way off the beaten path,” one voter admitted, “but everyone thinks it’s worth the trip.” Their New Orleans-trained chef makes just about everything from scratch.
You’ve heard of Cafe Dodici, right? So why did it get so many votes in the Unsung Restaurant category? Beats us—this fine Washington restaurant has garnered more accolades in our annual contest than any other eatery, ever!
Next time you’re looking for somewhere new to nosh, try these other voter-recommended eateries: Bluebird Diner, Iowa City: “an amazing restaurant”; Exotic India: “hidden deep in the backwoods of Coralville is the best Indian restaurant in Iowa”; Ali Baba, Iowa City: “local, ethnic, and delicious”; Little Mexico, Mount Pleasant:“delicious, affordable authentic tastes”; Bistro 322, Burlington: “best-kept secret in Iowa”; Arandas, Fairfield: “It’s in the University BP gas station, but don’t let that throw you;” Motley Cow, Iowa City: “go and surprise yourself with their seasonally prepared dishes!” Leaf Kitchen, Iowa City:“small but the food is fantastic and reasonable”; Kava House &Cafe, Swisher: “great homemade food and good ambiance”; Linn Street Cafe:“some of the best meals I’ve eaten”; Orchard Green, Iowa City, “I love their happy hour”; Takanami, Iowa City, “best overall restaurant in Iowa City, never ceases to satisfy.”