Datebook Diner: Malo translates to 'very good' in Des Moines
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Malo's happy hour specials.
The Latino restaurant Malo recently gave itself a culinary shot in the arm with the addition of nearly a dozen interesting new dishes to its menu.
Not that the trendy hotspot particularly needed a boost, near as I can tell. It's been enjoying an ambling popularity with patrons looking for interesting nibbles and sips. But the new dishes are a welcome infusion, a belated spring cleaning if you will, of some older dishes. The fresh options give chef George Formaro a chance to hone the focus of his restaurant.
I first reviewed Malo, which means "bad" in Spanish, last summer and found a lot to like. The location — the old Firehouse #1 that Malo shares with the Des Moines Social Club — is ideally situated in the heart of downtown Des Moines. The interior was completely remodeled and looks refreshingly welcoming, with bright colors, chandeliers, and a bohemian mural of the Mexican masked wrestler known as El Huracan Ramirez.
Yet you can still find evidence of the former blaze-dousing tenant in the large bays originally designed to allow rigs access, but that now serve as gateways from the sprawling dining room to Malo's expansive sidewalk patio. It's too bad Malo didn't retain the old fireman's poles, as well. Apparently, it would have posed too great a hazard to have guests slide down to their tables.
I also appreciated the creative menu. Per Jorge (as Chef Formaro refers to himself on the menu, tongue firmly in cheek), Malo is not strictly a Mexican restaurant because while it does serve plenty of Mexican cuisine — tacos, burritos, tamales — it also dips into the South American and Caribbean repertoires, which gives the kitchen a lot of ground to explore.
This is perhaps most evident in the Mortadella torta, a heavenly hot sandwich just added to the lunch menu. It's a bit of a calorie bomb: melting Swiss cheese, a heap of paper-thin mortadella, a slathering of chile aioli, all on a rich brioche bun. What I particularly enjoyed was that this delicious take on a famous Brazilian sandwich managed to samba simultaneously with the notions of South American's Italian influences — waves of Italian immigrants — and the chef's own Italian ancestry and culinary foundation. Was that killing three or four birds with one stone?
Other new dishes include a beef tongue torta that I did not try (though I'm game) and a Macho Steak Salad that I did try. This hearty salad seemed less grounded in native cuisines and more in the chef's own predilection for playfully, sometimes excessively, over-the-top food (as also evidenced by a dish called the Tijuana Trainwreck that tasted great but looked like hell). The new salad features a mix of greens, corn, bacon, avocado and onion rings with sliced seared flank steak on top. It's a big bowl of food full of complementary flavors, through I would recommend asking for the buttermilk dressing on the side. My order was a bit gloppy.
Jorge has a lot of new seafood on the menu as well, including a chile-rubbed grilled salmon and a blackened mahi torta, as well as a poached shrimp and scallops tostada and a seared scallop and shrimp dish with chimichurri sauce, with parsley and garlic sauce from Argentina.
But perhaps the best additions were not technically new at all but rather dramatically improved versions of the restaurant's original tacos and tamales, which failed to impress last year. I'd suggest the "#17" entree, which includes a grilled steak taco, saucy chicken enchiladas and a hearty tres puerco (three pig) tamale, all of which brimmed with an authenticity that was seductive. In particular, I'd commend the kitchen for their expertly prepared fresh corn tortillas.
Not only is the food more on point, Malo remains a fine place for happy hour (4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday) when the tacos and appetizers are half price, and the El Hefe Margaritas and Sangria are $5.
All in all, I'd say not bad, Malo, not bad at all.
Carlos Acevedo is a food editor with Grey Dog Media and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Critic's Rating: 4 stars
Cost: $$ ($10-25)
Address: 900 Mulberry St
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.