Environment Kitchen Garden

Bringing Food Home

Farmers Market Food

A relationship with food in American society is complicated.

Some don’t have enough. Others are awash in calories. We each have a human need for nourishment and the ways we go about meeting it are as different as the families which engendered us.

A favorite childhood memory is when Mother went to work in the school cafeteria after the Catholic Church built a new grade school near our home. With other women like her, she took a list of ingredients based partly on government programs (including lots of cheese) and partly on a limited budget, and made meals that included such dishes as porcupine meatballs (hamburger and rice) and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Father worked at the meat packing plant which had an employee butcher shop where he could buy beef, pork and meat products at a discount, and did. The idea of stretching hamburger by mixing it with cooked rice was a novelty in our household and eventually we implored Mother to make porcupine meatballs for us at home, just like the ones at school. She did.

This story of external culinary practices coming into our home is essential to understanding the rise of a diverse diet in American society. We see things out there, they look good, and we want them. Most people, including low-wage workers, have or find the means to get them.

Many books, careers and lives have been based on food in society. We are an individualized rather than generalized culture with regard to food acquisition, preparation and consumption. To a large extent, the rise of the modern mega grocery store has shaped our eating habits in ways no one would have expected. Much ink has been spilled about that and I’m less interested in regurgitating my slice of it.

What I do know is local food farmers work hard for the sparse income they garner. All farmers do. The local food movement of which they are a part is based on the hope more people will bring locally produced, raw ingredients produced in a sustainable manner into their kitchens, ice boxes and pantries. Enough people do for a small group of farmers to make a living.

In many ways the increased interest in local food is the same type of behavior that took place in our home in the 1960s. We experience surprise when our CSA share includes Broccoli Raab, Koji or Bok Choy. We learn how to eat and cook them and want more. It’s not that our home nourishment plan is boring. We want and enjoy the experience of creation as it relates to cooking and eating. We want that experience to be personal and shared with family. That is very American.

I concede promotion of local food is a form of consumerism no different from a tomato catsup purveyor who spends dollars on an advertising campaign to enhance sales. The same behavioral forces are at work. I’m okay with that.

Just so you know, I’m not bewitched by the allure of eating a kale salad, at least not yet. Suffice it to say the diversity and behavior regarding food in our household with its kitchen garden, farm sourcing and grocery shopping has some unique qualities that may not be of interest to the authors of the Michelin Guide, but make our lives a little better. That too is very American. That’s part of who I am, who we Americans all are.


Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant and Lucy’s Bakery

Road Sign
Road Sign

SOLON— Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant and Lucy’s Bakery is open and the tres leches cake is delicious.

A friend and I stopped for afternoon coffee, and if the interior was reminiscent of previous restaurants in the space, the food was delicious. The chef made a fresh pot of coffee when we ordered. What a great place to spend an overcast Friday afternoon.

I posted previously on the new opening, and any concerns expressed there were abated by our visit. From the well organized floor space to the friendly staff, the interior is inviting and colorful. Plan to return after your first visit.

Tres Leches Cake
Tres Leches Cake – Two Kinds

The web site at has details about the menu, specials and logistics. Click on the link and check it out.

There is patio seating for when the weather is nice, and two separate sections of indoor seating when it’s not.

Located off Highway One south of town, Frida Kahlo is worth a visit, and then another.

Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant and Lucy’s Bakery
101 Windflower Ln. #500
Solon, Iowa 52333
Tel: 319-624-2107

​Monday through Thursday: 4 until 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.

Call 319-624-2107

Daily from 4 until 6 p.m.


A Second Mexican Restaurant

El Sol de Solon
El Sol de Solon

SOLON— Can a community of about 2,000 people support two Mexican Restaurants? The founders of El Sol Mexican Cuisine believe it can.

Diego Rivera (no kin to the artist) is the former owner of El Sol and a related restaurant in Mount Vernon. With his former manager, Joel Vazquez, they hope to succeed with a new venture, Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant and Lucy’s Bakery, in a strip mall at the edge of town.

Corner of El Sol Mexican Cuisine
Corner of El Sol

Frida Kahlo de Rivera, namesake of the new restaurant, was a Mexican painter, perhaps best known for her self-portraits.

“Her work has been celebrated in Mexico as emblematic of national and indigenous tradition, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form,” according to her website.

Kahlo has been described as “one of history’s grand divas… a tequila-slamming, dirty joke-telling smoker, bi-sexual that hobbled about her bohemian barrio in lavish indigenous dress and threw festive dinner parties for the likes of Leon Trotsky, poet Pablo Neruda, Nelson Rockefeller, and her on-again, off-again husband, muralist Diego Rivera.”

Too controversial a symbol for a small town? Time will tell, but most local people don’t dig that deeply.

The issue may be that the space for the new restaurant is a graveyard to a succession of culinary failures, most recently The Dock Fine Dining. The new venture will test the viability of the strip mall space, however, Nomi’s Asian Restaurant and Subway have been successful a few doors down, and this pair of entrepreneurs has been successful in town with their first Mexican restaurant.

Rivera recently returned from a trip to a culinary school in Mexico where he learned about pre-Hispanic cuisine.

“When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs had sophisticated agricultural techniques and an abundance of food, which was the base of their economy. It allowed them to expand an empire, bringing in tribute which consisted mostly of foods the Aztecs could not grow themselves. According to Bernardino de Sahagún, the Nahua peoples of central Mexico ate corn, beans, turkey, fish, small game, insects and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses, seeds, tubers, wild mushrooms, plants and herbs that they collected or cultivated,” according to Wikipedia.

One hopes for authentic dishes that are reflective of more than standard Mexican restaurant fare. Having witnessed the development of this pair of restauranteurs, Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant and Lucy’s Bakery looks promising.


Small Town Dairy Queen

Dairy QueenSOLON— Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought Dairy Queen in 1998, and after that, it became easy to associate the purveyor of dairy treats, Coca-Cola, burgers, hot dogs and fries company with his corporate governance. It is our local outlet in the industrial food chain with ties to the deepest memories of growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the stores closed down at the end of each season— the owners packing it in for Florida or other warm places to avoid Iowa winters. Like a sundae topped with Buffett’s intellectual construct.

I stopped on my way to the county seat to get a vanilla cone. I was loathe to do so because the restaurant is less about food and more about the cognitive dissonance created when juxtaposing childhood memories with a strip mall experience. If I dined at our Dairy Queen on fare other than cones and Dilly Bars, the experience was forgettable.

Six illuminated menu boards above the transfer space from the kitchen to the order prep area display the offerings. There has not been much change in the staple lunch and dinner items since they were developed. The changes in food occur in the supply chain leading up to this Buffett cultural outlet.

On the positive side, the staff was friendly, courteous and efficient. I had my cone in a matter of minutes and the cool, soft experience evoked memories the way a Madeleine might over tea. Perhaps that’s the point.

The trip to Dairy Queen is one I delayed for as long as possible on the restaurant crawl. Except for memories, there is little reason to stop by, even if locals have made ours one of the longer term restaurant successes in town. There are likely other Buffett outlets in town, but none so conspicuous as this summer treat full of memory tainted by its association with the fifth largest company in the world. It is part of our small town dining experience, where the food is local, but not “local.”


Salt Fork Kitchen Redux

Salt Fork Kitchen on Saturday
Salt Fork Kitchen on Saturday

SOLON—My first reaction to Salt Fork Kitchen was accurate— except the part about struggling in the old, well used space. Great food will make the restaurant, even if the old church pews are uncomfortable, and the cheap, stackable restaurant chairs don’t rise to the food’s quality. Bent forks and all, the restaurant has become a popular stopping spot at 112 E. Main St. It’s because of the food.

Breakfast is the foundation of the restaurant according to their website. “Salt Fork Kitchen is a made-from-scratch, locally sourced restaurant that works with area farmers to provide exceptional, in-season food. We believe in quality first at a fair price.” They are open from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. On Saturdays from 9 a.m. until noon they offer a market of farm fresh products which supplements their sales at the nearby Iowa City Farmer’s Market. They also offer farm-to-table dinners on special occasions for a fixed price. A list of their local food sources is here.

Breakfast is a meal best made at home, but from time to time, people want a place to meet, or overnight company needs an easy transition to a road trip home. Salt Fork Kitchen serves these basic needs. If you stop there for breakfast or lunch, don’t expect fancy— just great food.

Read my previous posts about Salt Fork Kitchen here, here, here, and here.


Try Big Grove Brewery

Big Grove Brewery
Big Grove Brewery

SOLON— When one is connected to the community, it is hard not to like Big Grove Brewery. The city council invested a forgivable loan to get them to build at the corner of Main Street and Iowa Avenue, and unlike the last microbrewery in town, this one scaled to a size to brew lots of beer, accommodate large gatherings and employ a lot of people. They opened Aug. 29, 2013. On a Thursday night, the place was packed with a five minute wait for a table.

My connections to the restaurant are many. Last night, a neighbor greeted me upon entry, handing me a glass of house beer. The subject of one of my newspaper articles was having dinner with his wife and provided positive feedback on my story. I’ve been in the kitchen delivering herbs from the farm, and three of the farms where I worked last year are suppliers. Chef Ben Smart and I share an acquaintance who gave up a job in a Washington, D.C. public relations firm to become a chef. They met at the Herbfarm near Seattle, Wash., where Smart was executive sous chef.

I’m not sure how many jobs were created by this business, but more than 40 people were in their initial staff photograph. The managing partner of the business was busing tables last night and seems to have his fingers on the pulse of the community. It’s all good, but what else would I say?

The kitchen has a high temperature pizza oven, and we each had a 12 inch pizza and took some home. She had Pizza Margherita, topped with San Marzano tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil, olive oil and sea salt. I had the Ham and Egg with La Quercia prosciutto, arugula, pesto, soft cooked local eggs, confit potato and Parmigiano Reggiano. We had a side order of caramelized carrots made with red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, pine nut, arugula pesto, endive and preserved lemon.  For beverages camomile tea and the aforementioned beer. Check out their seasonal menu at

The vegetarian dishes that were on the menu last year are no longer there. Some friends came from Stone City for the roasted Brussels sprouts, which are now out of season. The dynamic of this restaurant will be whether or not they follow commercial interests, or can develop enough of a market for local, seasonal dishes to continue to be offered, including ample offering of vegetarian fare. In Iowa we like to repeat our favorite meals and dishes and the seasonal menu could get sanded off in the workshop of what sells. I hope not because a vegetarian can live on salad, pizza, side dishes and beer only for so long.

Two pizzas, a side and one paid beverage cost $45.63 with gratuity. It’s a little high for frequent dining, but a competitive price for the quality.

Try Big Grove Brewery in Solon. It’s a great place to get together with friends and celebrate from time to time. The initial energy from the opening has not worn off. Hopefully it never will as the establishment becomes part of the community.


Subway in Solon


SOLON— The restaurant crawl has been intentionally avoiding a trip to the Subway restaurant located in a strip mall at the edge of town. That there would be one is not surprising, although the only thing local about it is the employees and its iteration of industrial food architecture.

According to the chain’s website, Subway has 41,348 restaurants in 104 countries. It’s as popular as any, with about ten patrons when I stopped by at lunch time. Another chain restaurant had opened in a strip mall across the highway, but closed soon after the grand opening— Subway seems to have better staying power.

More than any other local eatery, Subway sits at the retail end of a processed food manufacturing supply chain. I picked a foot long sandwich for $5, and Subway is all about picking from their large stable of proprietary sandwich options. The fare is well advertised, with an ever changing menu. The current promotion is for Flatizzas, a piece of flat bread topped with tomato sauce, cheese and toppings from the sandwich bar, served like a pizza. It all looks the same to me.

Gone are the nostalgic images of the New York subway system that decorated the early stores. The dominant features were the sandwich bar, clean rest rooms and adequate table seating for guests. I noticed one of the sandwich artists changed plastic gloves twice while I was going through the line. Once after a trip to the store room to get something, and once to take money at the cash register. Like most big companies, Subway can’t afford to get on the wrong side of the public health department.

That’s really the saving grace about Subway. Because their processes are designed in a central location and trained locally, the products we buy in Solon are little different from what might be found anywhere else in the United States. Travelers want something familiar and consistent, and Subway meets that need.

I submit that the Solon Subway is no better or worse than any of its outlets worldwide. If that’s what trips your trigger, then there it is on Highway One south of town.


Solon Station

Solon Station
Solon Station

SOLON— Solon Station is a place to grab the special and go when on Main Street at lunch time. At 1:40 p.m. they were still serving— a cheeseburger basket for $6. I took a seat at the worn wooden bar and checked in on my mobile phone while waiting for the bartender/cook to prepare my plate.

Cheeseburger Special
The Special

Pub grub is about our local culture and Solon Station typifies the genre. It is industrial food service fare, cooked fresh, and served up with one’s favorite beverage. The menu is a limited selection of appetizers, sandwiches and pizza. There is a Sam Adams sandwich sign featuring the daily special, which in good weather can be found outside on the sidewalk.

Back Bar
Back Bar

I asked the bartender whether the increased competition for food and beverages on Main Street was affecting business. She said they were doing okay.

Neighborhood bars are a place where the idea of fun is “cold beer on a Friday night. A pair of jeans that fit just right. And the radio on.” Solon Station is a place to go for karaoke, buckets of beer, cup nights, and when one needs a break from the fam. Check out their Facebook page for more reasons to visit.

According to the bartender, the back bar is the original and is lined with bottles of popular spirits like Templeton Rye, Patrón, Jameson, Tanqueray, Stolichnaya and Maker’s Mark. Nothing too fancy here. Solon Station is an example of what remains of neighborhood bars in the area.

Sunlit Alcove
Sunlit Alcove

Sunlight illuminates an alcove near the entryway— the place to hold a meeting, or play cards on a slow afternoon. It is reminiscent of small bars and restaurants more likely to be found in Europe than a bedroom community like Solon.

As the saying goes, “come visit Solon Station for great service, cold drinks and hamburgers so good, you’ll become addicted.” In more than twenty years of living outside of town, I haven’t made many trips to a bar. After yesterday’s visit, Solon Station may be a more frequent stop on this native Iowan’s itinerary.


Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern

Sutliff Bridge at Night
Sutliff Bridge at Night

SUTLIFF— Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern in rural Johnson County, Iowa is a place to hang out after outdoor activities. It is tucked away in the sparsely traveled recesses of the Cedar River Valley, next to a restored Parker truss bridge that is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is accessible by automobile, although a main attraction is as a stopoff on a snowmobile, motorcycle, bicycle or hiking trip around the area. The tavern is frequented by hunters, and trophies and pelts are mounted on the walls. “There really is no town called Sutliff anymore but there still is a great small town bar. When you come inside the bar you will find a ceiling that has ‘who knows’ how many dollar bills with names and messages written on them,” according to a restaurant brochure/menu.

Interior of Sutliff Tavern
Interior of Baxa’s Tavern

Baxa’s Tavern is part of a destination attraction that includes the historic bridge and miles of rural, less traveled roads. The food is typical bar food, or “pub grub” as some locals affectionately call it. There is a full page of appetizers on the menu, including familiar items like chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, onion rings and French fries. There are also local specialties of gizzards, fried green beans, fried pickles and corn nuggets— breaded and deep fried just about anything. Prices for appetizers range from $2.25 for fried potatoes to $5 for 12 chicken wings.

There is a selection of sandwiches, featuring the signature Baxa Burger or the Sutliff Philly Steak. Prices ranged from $2.25 for grilled cheese up to $5.50 for the Baxa Burger. “Everything includes ketchup, mustard, pickle and onion,” according to the menu, reflective of the basic bar food fare. There is a limited selection of salads, including potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw, cottage cheese and a lettuce salad. I asked some patrons for their review, and every comment about the food was positive.

Dollar Bills
Dollar Bills

Beverages include bottled and canned domestic beer and soda, along with a couple of wine selections. Beverages were served in their bottle or can, providing the ambiance of hanging out at a friend or neighbor’s house during the 1960s.

For a while, time can stand still at Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern. While the food and beverages are industrial food service specials, the venue is very popular and worth a try if you are in the area seeking traditional pub grub.  Here is some basic info.

Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern
5546 130th Street NE
Lisbon, Iowa 52243
(319) 624-2204

Bar hours (Closed Monday)
Sunday 10 a.m. until 11 p.m.
Tuesday – Thursday 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. until ?

Grill hours
Sunday – Thursday 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.


El Sol de Solon

El Sol de Solon
El Sol de Solon

SOLON— El Sol Mexican Cuisine has been a hit since it opened. The small space at 240 E. Main St. can be crowded and a fun place to dine. On busy days, the noise level can high and the excitement contagious. It is Solon’s place to get tasty Mexican fare and enjoy life.

We recently had dinner there, and besides the two flat panel televisions, custom happy birthday songs and festive decorations, the star is the food. Our family is a repeat customer and that means they serve a selection of vegetarian fare on their full menu, the food is good, and the prices are reasonable. The menu is posted on line, so check it out. El Sol also serves a variety of bottled Mexican beers.

El Sol opened in March 2010, and has proven its staying power in a small town. We ordered two combination meals from the menu and an appetizer for a total of $20.50 (less gratuity). If you feel like Mexican food, and a good time, this is it. Try it once, and I predict you will want to return.

Open Monday through Saturday. Business hours are posted here.