Cheap food is a lifeline for college students and food writers.
So it makes sense that Warren County—home of Simpson College in Indianola—offers plenty of affordable dining experiences!
Don’t believe me? Then let me tell you how to get three meals for less than $30* in Warren County.
*Note: I only ate at local restaurants, I drank free tap water, and I didn’t include tips as part of the cost.
Here’s where I went and what I ate:
Breakfast – Crouse Cafe
It felt like I entered my grandma’s house when I stepped foot into Crouse Cafe. There was wood paneling galore and the plates lining the wall behind the bar were etched with the city’s iconic hot air balloons (Indianola is home to National Balloon Museum and annually hosts the National Balloon Classic).
This old-school cafe was large, in terms of square footage. Gray hair donned most of the patrons at Crouse, but it made sense after looking at the cheap menu prices. I plopped down on a bar stool and was served faster than my grandma could ever make her tater tot casserole.
What I Got: Blueberry Cake – $4.59
Described as “one fluffy pancake with juicy blueberries, served with blueberry syrup,” the description was not wrong. The pancake was super fluffy. Despite being the size of the vintage cafe plate, the lightness of the pancake never made me feel too full. The pancake also possessed more flavor and taste than other pancakes from my past college nights at Perkins or Village Inn.
While some restaurants skimp on blueberries, Crouse Cafe did not. These smooth but juicy berries provided a wonderful divergence from the pancake’s fluffiness.
I enjoyed a portion of it, but I committed an unfortunate error. I anticipated maple syrup’s thickness but instead got a 100-year flood of blueberry syrup. While it did not ruin the pancake, it made it less enjoyable to eat. I was not a fan of the syrup’s runniness and I could feel cavities forming in my mouth from the generous amount of sugar. Outside of this mishap, the blueberry cake stood tall over its pancake competition.
Address: 115 E. Salem Ave., Indianola
Lunch – Villaggio Italian Restaurant
After enjoying the Crouse Cafe, I headed northwest to Norwalk for lunch. The first thing I noticed about Villaggio Italian Restaurant was that it was very warm inside because the air conditioning was broken, but I was not deterred. The second thing I noticed was the Hobby Lobby-esque décor and the Italian scenescapes that covered the walls. Also, it smelled like a pizza place but felt like a Catholic church. Candles lined the wall, and I thought the Midwestern Italian-food restaurant pope could show up at any moment. After grabbing a vintage red Coca-Cola water cup, I was ready to eat.
What I Got: Meatball Sandwich – $7.15
I thought I made a mistake when I did not order a side, but I was wrong. This meatball sandwich made for a filling lunch. The large meatballs offered a subtle flavor burst outside of the meat mixture they were composed of and they did not leave me hungry. The mozzarella cheese formed a solid layer across the meatballs but required a constant amount of chewing to get down. The cheese may not have been the freshest, but it did its job on the sandwich.
Sadly, there was not a lot of meat sauce, though it could have evaporated away while being cooked. However, the bread—the most underrated part of the sandwich—made up for any shortcomings. While there was a lot of it, its generous size prevented it from becoming too soggy from the sauce.
If you plan to eat this sandwich, you better have nap time scheduled or take the afternoon off. It filled me up, and I did not want to do anything for the rest of the day. This solid meal packed a punch at a low price. A good deal for everyone.
Address: 1220 Sunset Dr., #101, Norwalk
Dinner – Houston’s on Main
If Crouse Cafe was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, Houston’s on Main in Milo was a mansion with eight bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a pool, and a basketball court. I have never been to a bigger small-town restaurant. There was so much seating that Houston’s on Main had two sets of restrooms. This space was needed. While I arrived before 5 p.m., the restaurant was packed for Taco Tuesday. As much as I love a good taco, the server recommended their famous wood-oven pizza. The service was faster than at most restaurants I go to and in no time the order-up cowbell rang, and it was time to eat.
What I Got: Personal-Size BBQ Chicken Pizza – $11.99
Houston’s on Main makes amazing pizza. Seriously, this was some of the best wood-oven pizza I have eaten.
Breaking through the cheese to taste the BBQ sauce, chicken, and onions felt like going through St. Peter’s Gate. This pizza had a large helping of fresh cheese and the thin crust was not too crispy. The crust’s smoky flavor lets you know this is a real-deal wood-fire pizza. It also paired well with the not-too-sweet, smoke-tinged flavor of the barbecue sauce.
Other pizza restaurants use large chicken slices, but Houston’s on Main does it right by cutting their tender chicken into smaller slices. Finally, they were not overzealous with the onions so I did not end up with the dreaded onion breath after eating.
To top off this delicious pizza experience, instead of leaving the customary mint with the check, the staff left my favorite childhood candy: a Tootsie Roll. At this point, I was all the way through St. Peter’s Gate.
Address: 120 Main St., Milo
Final Total: $23.73
by Sean Dengler
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