116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As the taco scene in Cedar Rapids continues to sizzle, SKO Tavern & Tacos is offering a new spot with a small menu downtown.
The new offering, opened May 5 by Epic Catering (formerly known as the Nanke restaurant group), brings an eclectic bar atmosphere, late night food offerings, and games to the space formerly occupied by the Della Viti wine bar.
With one simple instruction — “make it cool” — a longtime bartender for Belle’s Basix is taking his first plunge into food with a small, but specialized menu.
After Belle’s announced plans to close earlier this year, Demian Papagni, 45, bartender for eight years and manager for the past five, asked for some shifts at other bars. Instead, he was given charge of the new taco tavern, which will be adopting some novel features.
In a move that helps SKO stand out from dozens of Mexican restaurants and bar grills in Cedar Rapids, the kitchen is open until 1:30 a.m. — even later than Taco Bell.
What: SKO Tavern & Tacos
Where: 203 First Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday to Saturday; kitchen open until 1:30 a.m.
Phone: (319) 200-5446
Details: Full menu served until midnight; tacos only from midnight to 1:30 a.m. Carryout not available.
With one page of burritos, nachos, tacos and chips, you won’t get lost on this Mexican menu.
Papagni said the simple design was made to be enticing and fun. Gigantic nachos plates are built to feed three or four people, and tacos come in sets of three “as big as your head.”
Radish and pineapple garnish options for tacos have sparked as vigorous a debate as pineapple on pizza, the manager said.
“There are people who view (radishes) as blasphemous,” he said.
With six hot sauce options all made from scratch, there’s a progression from the plain “straight” and the “sissy” cilantro-lime crema to the “fire” adobo chile sauce or the “home” Carolina Reaper sauce for those who want to play with fire. In the middle, Papagni said SKO’s mango habanero sauce is one of the most popular options.
In addition to a small menu that allows the restaurant and bar to aim for perfection, portion sizes also make SKO stand out from the crowd. But if your mouth waters for the options on the menu, keep in mind one novel rule at SKO: no takeout.
In an effort to reinforce the environment SKO has set out to build, diners are required to dine in to get the full experience.
“It’s ‘Cheers’-y, in a certain way,” Papagni said.
With a full line of cocktails, margarita flights and specialty shots designed by the experienced bar manager, the descriptions are about as fun as the drinks themselves.
The El Capitan, for example, is described as an average Long Island iced tea that “had an affair with a sexy pirate.”
A full menu of shots gets you to the liquor quicker, and the manager makes all specialty cocktails and shots.
“You’re getting the same quality product every time,” he said.
And unlike some other bars, he promises this one will never close before 2 a.m.
Nowhere else in Cedar Rapids will you find a bar with church pews and chairs suspended from the ceiling by chains — all available for seating at tables alongside a mural of what the space looked like in the 1920s.
Papagni took extra care in testing to ensure the chairs would be engineered well enough to stand up to the power of his cocktails and shots.
But around the bar, an eclectic vibe takes hold with bar games, and along both walls are handpicked decor items that all have a meaning to the manager. If you want to know where something came from or what it means, Papagni can tell you.
In addition to bar games, SKO — short for “Let’s go!” — will have themed Thursdays, audio bingo nights and occasional drag shows.
How the manager got involved
A New York City native, Papagni has come to manage SKO through a chain of events ruled by his life motto.
“My mama said if somebody asks whether you can do something, say yes — you’ll figure it out,” he said.
After settling in Iowa for work on an aerial construction crew, he found work as a bouncer. Before long, his bar needed a bar back, then a bartender. He got into bar tending and management mostly by accident.
The index cards he made to learn how to make dozens of drinks, each complete with their own hand-drawn illustration, are framed on the brick wall inside SKO.
“I’m not an artist by any stretch,” he said. “I regret it now, because people order off this thing all the time.”
A jujitsu instructor at a gym behind Midtown Station, he came to know folks in the restaurant group through regular visits to the bar after work.
Like bartending, he also became an actor by accident and is currently working on feature films centered on him. After an actor for a fight scene he was choreographing never showed up, he was put into the movie.
This year, a short film he directed won Best Short from the Iowa Motion Picture Association Awards.
His job in the movies -- acting cool -- has applied well to his latest venture in real life.
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