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By Jim Duncan

Pho All Seasons

When Thu Phan, Dong Nguyen and family left town in early 2006, Des Moines’ pork bun addicts were forced into cold turkey withdrawal. Since Central Iowa is a dim sum free zone, the loss of a single standard offering from Asia’s moveable feast of delights was traumatic, disorienting even casual users of the doughy delights that Chef Thu stuffed with grilled pork, Chinese sausage and eggs. While helping to launch a restaurant in metro Phoenix, the family closed Pho All Seasons for over a year. Now that the Arizona restaurant is running smoothly, they’re back, their restaurant is open and Phan is making fresh pork buns daily.

Personally, I missed her chao tom more when the café was closed. That appetizer meticulously blends fresh shrimp, garlic and shallots into a paste that is molded around sugar cane stalks. When these are broiled, the sweetness of the cane stalk infuses the shrimp. You chew and suck the shrimp off the cane, after dipping it in sauce. If you are lucky enough to find chao tom in another Southeast Asian restaurant, it’s usually served with hoisin or fish sauce, most likely from bottles. Chu paired her chao tom with a homemade sauce that featured yellow bean paste and black beans. This $4.50 appetizer might be the best first plate bargain in town.

Other appetizers capable of causing withdrawal symptoms include shrimp rice cakes with yellow bean paste, five different kinds of spring rolls and chicken wings fried in tamarind sauce. I didn’t think that would work, but it did. Even better was a cha goi tom — a jumbo shrimp that was half covered in cream cheese, stuffed in a thin pot sticker wrapper and broiled. This was a low calorie variation on crab Rangoon, but utterly different, with the cream cheese spiking the seafood rather than the other way around.

The café is named after pho and that noodle soup is still the primary reason for visiting. Neck bone beef stock is cooked daily, around the clock. One optional addition, “flank,” usually includes some of the best brisket around. Rare slices of roast round beef can be ordered on the side — which makes me ask, why can’t more all American diners offer rare roast beef? Tendon, tripe and meatballs are also options, but it’s the stock that elevates this to top of the charts.

Chef Thu learned some new tricks in Arizona. At least nine new items innovate the menu and some are new to Des Moines. Jumbo shrimp are offered now in three new entrees, the most popular being grilled in tamarind sauce. A pair of new dishes feature expertly grilled and marinated rib steak, or grilled lemongrass chicken. Thu added some salads to her repertoire including a green papaya salad that excludes the usual fermented shrimp paste and hence it’s extreme sourness. Another new salad features lotus and pickled winter radishes, with shrimp and pork. Those pickled radishes were also served on my condiment platters, a nice touch. I also liked a new chicken salad in cabbage slaw. Fans of “Bizarre Foods” will delight in the chao long — a rice soup that includes just about every inner organ in a pig’s gut.

Daughter Kim doubles as expert waiter and bubble tea (fruit, tea, tapioca and soy milk) bartender. Unlike many bubble tea makers, she insists on using only fresh fruits including avocado, mango, strawberry, coconut, jackfruit, red beans, durian, watermelon, honeydew and lychee. Other drinks include hot or cold Vietnamese coffee, fresh squeezed limeade and soybean milk.

Side dish

SwineFest will bring national wine experts to the Iowa Culinary Institute (ICI) to judge Iowa wines. Five top chefs — Troy Trostel, John Weiler, Ephram Malag, Hal Jasa and Jennifer Strauss — will show off July 14. Try their pork creations and unlimited samplings of wines from 17 Iowa wineries for $25. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07) Aryana (3-8-07)
AJ's (3-15-07) Ban Thai (3-22-07)
Two Crop Palace(3-29-07) Mo Q x 2 (4-5-07)
What's In A Name?(4-12-07) Lemongrass (4-19-07)
Chef Joe's Place (5-3-07) Suburban Restaurant (5-10-07)
Gateway Market Café (5-17-07) Irina’s Restaurant Bar (5-24-07)
Trailer Tripe (5-31-07) Azalea (6-07-07)

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