Restaurant spices up IC area with creole flavors


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From time to time, community members in Oxford, Iowa, can hear pounding coming from the restaurant Augusta, where Chef Ben Halperin is hard at work pounding tenderloins for his signature dish, a fried pork tenderloin sandwich.

The Midwest classic appeals to the taste of Augusta's visitors. But Halperin spices up his menu with Creole flavors from his longtime Big Easy roots.

"The area is saturated with chain restaurants, and we wanted to put our talents out here with New-Orleans-style food," Jeri Halperin said. "There was opportunity in a small town."

Augusta, 10 S. Augusta Ave., opened on Jan. 16, 2008, around two months after the two moved to Iowa. They met in New Orleans, but after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home, they were forced to leave the city.

Opening the restaurant was a risk for the couple, who feared their Southern flavor wouldn't be well-received in Iowa.

"The flair [of Augusta] is having gumbo and a couple New Orleans dishes so people can try it if they like," Ben Halperin said.

Another risk the couple took was serving fresh fish on the menu. He said many patrons were "uneasy" about ordering it.

"In the beginning, we had to take some things off the menu," Ben Halperin said. "But now, it has become easier because people trust my cooking."

The chef has impressed the locals as well as Iowans on a broader scale. The Pork Producers of Iowa voted the tenderloin the "Best of Iowa" in 2008.

Ben Halperin knows the importance of supporting the local food economy, and he includes fresh food from Iowa farmers in his dishes. From the meat in the burgers to the greens in his mixed salads, he is committed to staying local.

"There is a community aspect but also a sensibility [to fresh food]," he said. "As a restaurant, we can say, 'Hey, this is locally grown by one of your farmers.' "

Around town, he is also known for his specials, which might include a smoked duck and crabmeat-encrusted walleye.

"When the folks on our email list know Ben is making a certain special, they will come out," Jeri Halperin said. "Our regular menu will maintain the people, but our specials will bring them out."

For the past two years, the couple has purchased produce from Lalanya Bodenbender's market, Henry's Village Market, 4125 V St., Homestead.

Bodenbender said she and her husband have eaten at the restaurant since it opened. She loves how the chef can take a culinary twist on her vegetables.

"I felt like it was something we had been waiting for, because we would typically drive to Iowa City to eat," she said. "We thought this was something much closer that was different and had a local flair to it. There are people out this way that want to eat different food, not just at a diner."

Bodenbender's personal favorite things to eat at Augusta are the side dishes of creamed corn, sugar carrots, and mashed potatoes because it is simple food yet cooked well, she said.

"The food is tasty, unpretentious, and very well-made," she said. "I really enjoy the cozy atmosphere, and it's a nice place to take friends from out of town."

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