Sure, we like our pork tenderloins and sweet corn, but Des Moines' dining scene is nothing if not diverse. Variety is the spice of life, and these local favorites have spice in spades. Warm up with a bowl of Pho or birria, or say "open sesame" to some shawarma or lumpia. It's all good, and it's all right in here in Greater Des Moines.
If you've never had Ecuadorian food, you need not be intimidated. This is meat and potatoes stuff, with a healthy dose of plantains to satisfy your sweet tooth. As featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the menu features grilled chicken and grilled carne asada served with rice and beans, but the real star may be the Hornado con mote – slow-roasted marinated pulled pork served with a potato patty, white corn, and rice. Side of empanadas practically mandatory, not optional. Their Mi Patria for 2 (a little of everything) still remains the best bang for your buck in town.
Tacos La Familia
So as not to bury the lede here: get the birria. Literally, stop reading this, get in your car, drive there, and get the birria. (Maybe check their hours first.) More specifically, the Tacos Ahogados (tortilla dipped in birria sauce and fried with melted cheese) or the Birria Pizzadilla (basically a quesadilla). Get either of these with…wait for it…a side of birria stew. If you haven't googled 'birria' yet, what are we even doing here?
Here comes a HOT TAKE: one follower claimed that "Eat Thai is better than any Thai food I had living in New York City for 20 years." Whoa, that is spicier than ordering their Yellow Curry with level 5 spice! Since we're living on the edge here, skip the safe (but delicious) pad thai and try the Pad See Ew (flat rice noodles with egg, broccoli, and choice of meat) or live like a king/queen with their Surf and Turf Fried rice with beef and shrimp, which may just be one of the best dishes that only us is talking about.
All adolescent snickering about the name aside, this is seriously good Vietnamese food. With 145 items on the menu (this is the type of place you just order by number), you're best served to put your fate in the hands of the knowledgeable staff who can help guide you. Or when it doubt, go for the Pho, a rice noodle soup served with basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, jalapeno, lime wedge, and choice of protein. Bonus pro tip – if you love Vietnamese food, check out Vietnam Café in Merle Hay Mall. Don't let the "mall" status scare you off; this is often lauded as one of the best hidden gems in the metro.
This local favorite serving Nepalese cuisine earns raves for its Chicken Vindaloo and Lamb Curry, but we can't stop raving about their momos. (Not to be confused with a similar sounding Iowan dish). These dumplings come steamed or fried and are filled with chicken or vegetables. Gimme mo'!
This cute little Lebanese café in the East Village may be the only place where 'date night' and 'gyro' co-exist. With its chic décor and dark ambiance, the gyro plates and shawarma are the stars of the show, but vegetarians in the know rave about their vegetarian sampler and plethora of options.
Often times the answer to the question, "Who has the best authentic tacos in Des Moines?" Tacos Marianas is as unassuming as it is delicious. The beauty lies within the simplicity. Order some a la carte tacos with al pastor, carnitas, or carne asada, on a corn tortilla with cilantro and onion. Pair with a cold Tecate. Repeat until full and happy.
Besides being the best Instagram follow on the list, Lucky Lotus might just be the most buzzed about as well. Modern and progressive, hip yet comfortable, Lucky Lotus is the cool kid on the list (case in point, they sell beanies and stickers) thanks to dishes like Yuzu Brussels, Drunken Noodles, and Lucky Bento. Their Winter Green Curry with tempura fish might just be the best cure for the winter blues ever cooked up. Be sure to order a side of crab Rangoons – they're the triangle kind stuffed full of the goods!
If you're looking for a more traditional sit-down Mexican restaurant with warm chips, a festive atmosphere, and margaritas as big as your head, El Fogon in West Des Moines is the place for you. They've got all the usual suspects on the menu, and about a million other interesting offerings, including some "trainer approved" healthy options for those sticking to their New Years' resolutions. They make the tortillas homemade, right at the front of the restaurant, and that makes all the difference in the world. Sit on the patio in the summer, where there are solid odds you'll be serenaded by mariachi music as you nosh on your chips and Guacamole on Stone, or as we call it, Guacamole on Point.
Lola's Fine Kitchen
As the purveyors of the best hot sauce in the world (a literal hot take!), Lola's knows a thing or two about making your taste buds tingle. Their brick-and-mortar outpost in Ankeny serves up one-of-a-kind Filipino-Pakistani fusion in a fast-casual atmosphere where they are happy to help any newbies navigate the deliciousness. Here you can build your bowl or roti (Pakistani bread similar to a tortilla) and fill it with Filipino chicken, pork sisig, crispy chicken or tofu, or mixed veggies like sweet potatoes, peas, and lentils. Then you add a side and a sauce, and no order is complete without a side of lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls). Everything is so packed with flavor, you won't even need their hot sauce to spice things up.
Gursha Ethiopian Food
Despite being new, Gursha is quickly making a name for itself in the Drake neighborhood with its counter service take on Ethiopian food. Within five minutes, you'll be sampling Ethiopian faves like Sega Wat (beef stew) and Doro Wat (chicken and egg in spicy berbere sauce), all sopped up with injera – Ethiopian sourdough flatbread bread unlike any sourdough bread you've ever had.
The best sushi place in Des Moines looks and tastes like you stepped into a New York hotspot, minus the prices and attitude. Akebono uses fresh ingredients, free of any gimmicks, just darn good sushi. If sushi isn't your thing (it will be if you give it a shot here), it's hard to go wrong with a steamy bowl of their ramen, either.
If Lucky Lotus is the best Instagram follow, Monarca Paletas might just be the most "Instagrammable" food on the list. For the uninitiated, a paleta is a Mexican frozen treat made from natural fruits like strawberry and mango or rich, creamy ingredients such as chocolate or pistachio. Basically the best looking, best-tasting popsicle you've ever had. This location in Clive has over 30 flavors with endless amounts of flavor combinations. Pick your paleta, pick your drizzle, topping, and leave happy.