There are only a smattering of things of which you can be sure: 1) the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, 2) Cher is immortal and 3) on New Year’s Eve, you’d find my parents eating dinner at Latin King in Des Moines.
At 4 p.m.
When they opened.
I’m not sure when the tradition started exactly (it was long after I left the nest), but Mom and Dad would rustle up their cronies or in-laws for an old school Italian feast. Always the thrifty one, The Bevinator would use a gift card someone gave her that she stashed away nine years earlier. (She’d always lament if people got her mindless birthday presents especially “when they could have gotten us a Latin King gift card,” she’d say.) Of course, after they passed away, I’ve made sure to keep the tradition alive. All my beloved aunties got Latin King gift cards in their Xmas stockings this year.
Yes, there are plenty of other epic Italian restaurants in central Iowa. (Well, one—namely Noah’s Ark, which is hands-down my particular fave.) But my folks had a particular affinity for Latin King since it was—as my dad would argue—the only nice restaurant on the east side of Des Moines. “Why don’t we have more nice restaurants on the east side?” he would often spout with wild abandon. (It remains one of the great mysteries of life.)
Latin King is always notoriously closed on Sundays and Mondays. (They make a super, über-rare exception on Mother’s Day. I’ve seen the line to their gourmet buffet snake from one end of the restaurant to the other. After they break out dessert, it’s been known to wrap through the lobby, bar, and trash corrals as well. Fact: Iowans like to carbo-load.)
One year New Year’s Eve fell on—gasp!—a Monday. Naturally, my parents assumed Latin King would be opened because, welp, New Year’s Eve. Turns out, the restaurant was unapologetically closed. My parents called me at 4:01 p.m. in a dither. At first, I couldn’t deduce what was happening since they were both talking over one another like chattering magpies. “Now what?” my dad sighed. “How could they close on New Year’s Eve?” Mom snipped. (I have no proof, but I’m sure she was shaking her fist when she said it.) With no other game plan—and every other restaurant booked to the hilt—my folks went and got sub-par Chinese food. I had to hear about that experience for the next twelve years. I’m surprised they didn’t boycott Latin King after that scandal.
You can bet that if I were in Des Moines tonight, I would be eating at Latin King in honor of my folks. I’d order their onion rings and garlic-licious chicken spiedini and would bathe in their homemade creamy parmesan salad dressing. (“No, sir—we cannot fill your Big Gulp container with our house dressing,” a server once told me. Spoilsport.)
The only thing my parents loved more than their Latin King tradition was making sure they were home by 5:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. “The loonies start coming out around 6 o’clock!” my mom would dutifully remind everyone within earshot. “We’ll take our dessert TO GO!”