THE FEATURE- Asian restaurants of Des Moines, A remarkable diversity

By Jim Duncan

Asian restaurants have been part of Iowa’s café scene for more than 110 years.

Roast duck at Great China.

Roast duck at Great China.

Their early days were rather notorious. Des Moines’ first Chinese café opened in 1903, and several others quickly followed. Those owned by George Wee were frequently raided by police. Newspapers reported that “scantily clad women scurried out windows,” as Wee was arrested along with “alleged actresses,” often the infamous Duncan sisters. Patrons from what The Des Moines Register and Leader called “fine families” were sometimes hauled away, too, as crowds cheered the lawbreakers into paddy wagons. That paper wrote that prominent Des Moines citizens were in Wee’s restaurants “on self-described slumming adventures.” Wee outlasted three Des Moines police chiefs before a city attorney convinced him to move his businesses to Chicago.

It’s unfair, though, to characterize the early days of Asian restaurants without considering an unfortunate context. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted the rights of Chinese immigrants in America. In 1924, American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers persuaded Congress to extend that same “undesirable” status to people from Japan, the Philippines, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia as well. No Asians living in the USA, even those born here, were allowed to become citizens, to own property outside of Chinatowns, to bring their wives or children to America or to return to America after visiting their families in Asia. When assimilation isn’t possible, people have no incentive to play by rules that seem rigged against them.

Remarkable diversity

After Prohibition was repealed in 1932, Asian restaurants in Iowa operated with less controversy. The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943, and the Immigration Act of 1965 allowed Asians into America without specific racial restrictions. In 1975 Iowa Governor Robert Ray led a massive resettlement for thousands of Asians displaced after the end of the Vietnam War. Ray noted that would have wonderful consequences.

“We did it for the humanitarian need, to save human lives. We had no idea what rich rewards we would receive — the remarkable diversity they would bring to Iowa,” he mused.

Breaking Asian cuisines down into national categories helps one appreciate that diversity.

Chinese

Curries, like this lamb chop yellow curry at King & I, are a popular way for Thais to eat rice.

Curries, like this lamb chop yellow curry at King & I, are a popular way for Thais to eat rice.

Approaching half a century here, Kwong Tung claims to be Des Moines’ oldest continuously operating Chinese café. Its menu includes many of the bargain-priced dishes and carryout service that made Chinese food popular in mid America: sweet-and-sour, egg foo young, fried rice, moo goo gai pan, egg rolls, etc. On Sunday mornings, it offers the most comprehensive dim sum menu in town with 50 items ranging from exotics, such as chicken feet, radish rice cakes and taro root dumplings, to more familiar treats like pot stickers, pork buns and sesame balls. Rice Bowl is similarly aged and offers similar bargains but no dim sum. Wong’s Chopsticks is much newer and does offer Sunday dim sum. Tsing Tsao, China Chef, Mr. Egg Roll, Sam’s Egg Rolls, Taste of China, China Place, Cheng’s Garden, Shang Yuen and Hong Kong Chinese are among the places that offer similar bargain-priced dishes with few frills. Several offer Internet ordering and cheap delivery. Red China Bistro adds a bit of nightclub vibe to the genre. Longtime fixtures, The Mandarin and House of Hunan, add style with classics like jellyfish and sea cucumber (Mandarin) or flaming appetizers and desserts (Hunan). With the most elaborate menu of Mandarin classics (Peking duck, lobster yu hsiang, etc.) Great China has been a fixture in Cobblestone Plaza since 1988, boasting table-cloth dining and a chef who has been winning international awards for nearly 40 years.

Teriyaki chicken dish at King and I is a traditional Thai recipe.

Teriyaki chicken dish at King and I is a traditional Thai recipe.

America’s first buffet was purportedly a Chinese “all you can eat” operation in Las Vegas. During the last 15 years, Chinese buffets have sprouted all around the metro, W. China, China One, International Buffet, Dragon House and Ming Dynasty among them.

Thai

Not one Thai restaurant existed in Iowa until after 1979, when Benichang Luangaram and Prasong “Pak” Nurack began serving Thai food on weekends at Little Joe’s diner. A few years later, they would open Taste of Thailand in the East Village, where Blu is now. Nurack, who popularized political polls at Taste of Thailand, is now a respected second-term member of Thailand’s Parliament. Today Thai restaurants cover the state with cafés in Iowa City, Fairfield, Ames, Cedar Falls, Davenport, Muscatine, Mason City, Mount Pleasant, Onawa, Storm Lake, Panora and Sioux City. One of several Thai places in Fairfield has a dual mission: Its full name is Thai Deli and Museum of Sustainable Energy.

Des Moines is blessed with The King and I, Thai Flavors, Cool Basil, Thai Flavors and Thai Kitchen, plus several fusion cafés that include Thai dishes. Thai cuisine is based on rice and rice stick dishes. The most famous of the latter, pad thai, was invented by a Prime Minister wanting to wean his country off imported wheat noodles during the Great Depression. It’s a stir-fried dish like most Thai noodle dishes. Thai soups, mostly made with chicken stock, ginger and lemongrass, are among the most famous in the world. Thai curries are the most popular way to eat rice. They consist of mixing a choice of several popular chile pastes with coconut milk, giving them all of the five flavors on Thai cuisine: hot, sour, sweet, salty and bitter.

Vietnamese and Lao

A-Dong, Des Moines’ longest operating Vietnamese café (since 1989), introduced Iowans to pho, the traditional beef broth-and-noodle breakfast of Southeast Asia. By doing so, it also introduced a new generation of Iowans to an old standard of scratch cooking. While almost every Vietnamese café in the state makes its stock from bones, only expensive bistros and a few traditional kitchens still bother with that hard work. Pho is eaten with a combination of brisket, tripe, round of roast beef, meatballs, tendons, chicken and seafood, plus basil, beans sprouts and chilies to taste.

Saigon crepes at Pho All Season.

Saigon crepes at Pho All Season.

Viet cafés in the metro have become much more than just pho houses, though. Most have menus with 60 items or more, including some culinary wonders such as shrimp on sugar cane, lemongrass chicken, roast duck and quail. Laotian-influenced places, like Café Lily, often make soups with pork bones instead of beef and add more choices of organ meats. Popular Southeast Asian cafés here include Pho All Seasons, Nut Pob, TNT, Pho 888, Saigon Café and Vietnam Café (the first Vietnamese restaurant in a mall food court).

A number of places now offer menus with several Asian cuisines to sample. Usually one can find Vietnamese, Chinese-American, Thai and Lao dishes at Aroy-Dee, Fawn’s, Café Fuzion, China Garden, Rolling Wok, One Asian and Café Su. True to its name, Canton Korean and Chinese Food Express is the last of several Korean cafés in town.

Indian

Befitting a nation with 17 official languages, Indian cuisine differs considerably between northern and southern styles. Indian restaurants have become popular particularly with vegetarians. India Star is the town’s classic northern style restaurant with its self-built clay tandoori oven and a knack for making the breads that are featured in the Hindu speaking parts of the country. Indian Delights in Ames is a tablecloth, northern Indian specialist café.

Dosa from Namaste.

Dosa from Namaste.

Namaste, which recently expanded, is the leading example of southern-style cooking, particularly the classic dishes of Hyderabad, which, in culinary terms, is to India what Parma is to Italy or New Orleans is to the U.S. Though it also does tandoori dishes, Namaste specializes in dosa, a crisp, thin pancake made with a 24-hour batter of rice and black lentil paste that is beloved in the Dravidian parts of the South Asian subcontinent. Kurry Xpress also specializes in South Indian dishes. India Market offers a short lunch menu. The BP station at Southeast 14th and Maury even sells freshly fried Indian appetizers.

Japanese

When Cy Gushiken opened Ohana Steakhouse in West Des Moines in 1996, few Iowans had any ken of Japanese cuisine. In fact, it seemed odd that Ohana emphasized its teppanyaki steakhouse identity and did not add sushi for several years. Taki changed things in 2002 with its sushi bar becoming as busy as its teppanyaki room. Now Appare, Samurai and Fuji in Ames all combine sushi bars with steakhouses.

Sushi and sashimi platter at Wasabi Tao.

Sushi and sashimi platter at Wasabi Tao.

Sushi began standing on its own when a group of local doctors persuaded Osaka-trained sushi master, Miyabi “Mike” Yamamoto, to move to East Village and open Miyabi 9. Sakari, Sakura, Hoshi, Haiku and Happy Sushi all helped increase the popularity of vinegar rice and raw fish. Today it’s available in convenience stores, gas stations and supermarkets.

The latest leap forward began when Japanese-trained, Chinese New Yorker, Jay Wang, moved to town in 2012 and opened Wasabi Chi. He began flying fresh fish in from Hawaii — fish we had not seen before in Iowa, such as sunfish, horse mackeral and Japanese blue fin toro. He added to that when he Wasabi Tao downtown last year and helped accelerate the volume of fresh fish. Akebono 555 opened later in 2013 with the same philosophy, plus some amazing ramen. RELISH

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