Last weekend was a hot, muggy mess in central Iowa. And yet for you, the reader, I waded through the moist crowds of downtown Des Moines to visit a popular bar and see how their burger stacks up to my favorites. This is that story.
My wife was travelling south last Saturday to visit a friend visiting from Texas. Seeing an opportunity, I convinced my children's grandmother into enriching her grandchildren's lives through cinema (Finding Dory) on that day, freeing me from the normal weekend drudgery of the domesticated male. This allowed me to participate in a favorite pastime I long ago traded for parental responsibility: day drinking.
I arranged to meet up with KnowDan via his Twitter account, @_Danalytics, and since he was going to be downtown for the Arts Festival anyway, we decided to use that area as the starting point and allow fate to draw us to our final location.
And so, after ushering my family to their respective destinations, I set out for mine and arrived at the weekend hotspot shortly before 11:00 AM. Alone for another hour, I strolled lazily through the maze of vegetables and crafts trying to avoid the temptations of the various breakfast and egg roll stands littered throughout the tents. The heat coupled with humidity was taking a toll on my desert acclimatized body, and so I thought it best to escape the heat and find comfort somewhere inside. Preferably where alcohol was served.
Soon I found myself walking through the doors of the High Life Lounge. As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior I realized I was one of, if not the only, person whose shirt came with sleeves, regardless of sex. A couple of heavily tattooed regulars turned to examine me as I searched for refuge in a booth at the back of the bar. In an effort to better fit in, I ordered a can of Old Style then sat quietly and examined my surroundings. The waitress delivered my beer and a menu which I opened and glanced at their cheeseburger selections while gaining a greater appreciation of my surroundings.
Encircling a table to my right, a family dressed in matching Hawkeye apparel sat belly to belly voraciously attacking their individual plates of fried foods. I quickly moved my eyes to the curved wooden bar that served as the bartender's buffer between her and her gruff patrons. The conversation seemed loose and friendly this early in the morning but I imagine the barrier had seen its share of trouble over the years. In a booth across the room, next to a vintage Frogger machine I swore I would return to play one day, sat a collection of older women who seemed to also have escaped here from the crowded mess of the Farmer's Market.
Content on not needing to find a different spot for lunch, I sent KnowDan a text letting him know my wishes while The Doors played on the classic jukebox. As I finished my second beer, he appeared at the door behind me and hailed me through the threshold. I settled my tab and headed on through to the other side.
Like a set of conjoined twins, the High Life Lounge and El Bait Shop share the same foundation yet are separated by a common breezeway, a vastly different beer selection and a 20 year age difference in clientele it would seem.
KnowDan sat down at a table close to the bar and I was happy to see a Canadian-looking fellow sitting in a seat next to his. I had hoped CanAzn would be able to make the meat-up and we made the round of introductions as our server, who happened to be Miley Cyrus' doppelganger, took our drink orders.
Me: Let's begin with the questions. KnowDan, what made you decide to attend Iowa State?
KnowDan: The overall driving factor for attending Iowa State, for me, was my brother. He enrolled at ISU in the Fall of 1996 and that's when I started to loosely follow the Cyclones. When my brother would come home on the weekends we'd listen to Pete Taylor on the Cyclone Radio Network's affiliate, KIX 101, out of Marshalltown. Then I remember in 1998 when Iowa State finally broke their (football) losing streak to Iowa. My brother called home, screamed, "We're kicking their ass!" then hung up. I immediately flipped on the radio and became a diehard Cyclone fan from that day forward.
When it came time to figure out college in 2002, I applied to three schools: Iowa State, Northern Iowa, and Michigan. Michigan may be an outlier in that group, but it's a testament to the strength of branding and TV time back before the college football bubble really started to grow. I remember growing up watching guys like Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson setting the world on fire and thought Ann Arbor would be a good destination after high school. Then I saw the full out of state cost of $18k per year and realized Ames was probably the more intelligent choice.
CanAzn: I decided to attend Iowa State because I wanted to be an engineer (which totally panned out since I changed majors twice in school), and the only ones I considered were ISU, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech. I decided I didn't want to be in the South and figured I'd leave the state for grad school (which never happened to the disappointment of my Asian parents) so in-state tuition won out. Best lazy decision I've ever made!
Unlike KnowDan, sports played no factor in my decision, as I was even more of a Hawkeye fan than Cyclone fan in high school.
Hey, we all make mistakes when we are young.
Swing dancing was popular when I was in my twenties, so I absolved CanAzn for his mistakes and moved on.
Me: What was your favorite sporting memory as a student?
CanAzn: Definitely the tornado game against Colorado. The sight of Brent Curvey's 350 pound body running 60 yards for a touchdown hours after there were literal Cyclones in the area was one of those moments you'll never forget. Otherwise, my college years were mostly the McDermott and Chizik eras, so not a lot of happiness to recall.
KnowDan: The Run, easily. Freshman year, third row, no coat and full of rum. Texas Tech had done a great job hanging in there until Seneca ran the most memorable play in school history. I remember seeing him drop back to the 30, cut to the right sideline and, as he cut back, yelling at my friend that he had a shot. Then of course Michael Wagner insured Seneca was able to waltz into the end zone.
Me: Both of you were instrumental in starting WRNL, and only recently turned the management over to KFitz. Can you share with me how it all started and what role each of you played in its development?
KnowDan: Oh, no special story except a bunch of us got banned from CycloneFanatic, kept in touch, then decided there needed to be a less "family friendly" version of Cyclone sports coverage. We were up and running on WordPress within a day of coming up with the idea and went live May 18th, 2010 with something that was...raw.
Other than being our primary football writer, I wore a lot of the other hats along with CanAzn. Editor, manager, hack photoshopper (only occasionally) and just about anything that was necessary to keep the site moving and growing. However, we wouldn't be where we're at today if it wasn't for the other guys that started the site and the many, many folks that have written over the past six(!) years.
CanAzn: The inception of WRNL was pretty much as KnowDan stated, and as the Asian/IT guy (stereotypes are great, aren't they?) of the group, I was tasked with managing the site, social media and actually getting the logistics of the site going. After launching as a simple WordPress site, it became part of the Bloguin network before finally finding its current home at SB Nation in September of 2011. Fitzy is taking us into the great beyond, so I no longer manage the site, but I'll always hold the title of being WRNL's shittiest photshopper and GIFmaster, which is totally on my resume and has never impressed anyone.
Our food, which we ordered before the questions began and had arrived somewhere around KnowDan's recounting of The Run, was now completely devoured. I had finished first since I didn't have the need to rattle off long winded answers, and so set the precedence for the reviews that follow.
VegasCyclown Review: I had the standard Double Cheeseburger basket with fries. Having deviated from my known happy place last time (now referred to as the Pretzel Bun Incident), I went back to what is known and enjoyed.
The burger itself was pleasantly surprising. While nothing special, the thin patties contained the perfect amount of grease to be satisfying without stepping over the line. The cheese was abundant and nicely melted into the rendered fat of the beef and the bun held up nicely without stealing the show from the other two stars. My only complaint would be the actual meat, whose flavor profile ranged from bland to flavorless, seemed to depend too heavily on the natural flavors of rendered fat. A little salt and pepper can go a long way.
Overall, I'd give this burger a good score of 23/30: 6/10 for meat, 9/10 for cheese, 8/10 for bun. I wouldn't recommend going to El Bait Shop or High Life Lounge for their burgers, but it is more than adequate bar food to soak up the libations and good cheer that surround you here.
KnowDan Review: I had the Bacon Cheeseburger because I'm a sucker for some good bacon and that part of the burger didn't disappoint with three crispy pieces laid out on top of the burger and cheese. The cheese was just about perfectly melted to hold everything together and, as an aside, I'll say I'm happy they provided an option for cheeses since American cheese is not cheese. A good old cheddar suffices for this review.
This obviously isn't my first time having this burger and, while it's not life changing, it is a solid option to provide some filler between a number of brews at one of the best bars in Des Moines. The burger patty is ¼ lb but is processed all to hell and even greasier to boot. Its inoffensive, but nothing special and easily the weakest part of the sandwich. High marks on cheese and a simple bun. Lower marks for meat that looks like it came out of a press assembly line. Final Score: 22/30
CanAzn Review: The standard Cheeseburger basket is a classic and what I get almost every time I'm here. There's really nothing special about it (I'm noticing a trend here), but when you're drinking beer at El Bait, you don't want a ton of food and it's a perfect foil. Plus, it's under $5. I'm probably the worst person to grade using your (Vegas's) review criteria, as I over complicate most things I cook and stack toppings upon toppings onto my burgers/sandwiches. That said, here we go.
It is an average bun with average quality meat, but the cheese meltage is optimal which brings this burger in at a 21/30 rating for me.
I convinced the two to stay and have one more beer with me before saying good bye to both them and my brief visit with freedom. I hope to be able to visit El Bait Shop and the High Life Lounge again one day, and if you're ever in the area, I recommend you do the same.