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By Jim Duncan

Dragon House West

Chinese restaurants have been operating in Des Moines for 102 years, longer than even Italian restaurants. Their early days included frequent police raids to arrest bootleggers, prostitutes and “slumming socialites.” That changed after one restaurant proprietor was persuaded to move his businesses to Chicago. After that, Chinese cafés continued in low profile until the 1970s, when a dozen new restaurants upgraded the genre with tablecloth dining and huge menus. That bunch had a good run, but were undone in the last decade by the emergence of all-you-can-eat buffets, industrial franchise outlets, supermarket Chinese food and strip mall kitchens with free home delivery. Chinese food here became more like fast food than artful dining.

Dragon House West brings something old and something new to the table. To most of their customers, they exemplify the typical middle American Chinese restaurant with more than 250 similar menu items, a lunch menu in the $5 to $7 range and free home delivery. As if that weren’t enough, they recently added two additional services. These new menus (and you have to ask for them) introduce two of the finer things about Chinese cuisine to Des Moines: hand-pulled noodles and dim sum.

The hand-pulled noodle menu is available at all times. They are served ramen style, with choices of some traditional delights like oxtail, tendon, tripe, shredded pork, as well as with some exotic ones like eel and pickled mustard tubers. Oxtail ramen came with splendid, fresh tasting noodles, fresh bok choy, corn, a fried egg and meat, but my broth was disappointing compared to those at local Vietnamese places, or to Gateway Market Café’s. This tasted more like chicken than oxtail and didn’t show any glistening evidence of bone stock. A kim chee ramen was better with several pickled delights and a broth that had miso flavors.

The dim sum menu is available only on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Service varied considerably over four visits. At its best, servers wheeled several carts around and showed diners the available dishes. This is the traditional method — the words “dim sum” imply pointing. On my second visit, the carts were scarcer. By my third visit they had been retired — all dishes were being served like standard menu items.

Dim sum was bargain priced ($2.50, $3.70 or $4.35) and all plates provided generous tastings for two to four people. Dollar-for-dollar that sure beats sushi or tapas. I tried some hard core items: Chicken feet in fermented black bean sauce were surprisingly chewable; wok-fried white radish cakes were superb, with full spectrum of textures; white radish pastry wasn’t as interesting, but I’ll order it again; shredded taro cakes are an accessible introduction to an under appreciated food; tripe had a surprisingly good texture, but little flavor; omassum tasted and looked like tripe, but its XO sauce gave this dish more flavor. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this rarely eaten digestive track organ on a menu in Iowa.

I moved on to softcore dim sum like shrimp dumplings, pork buns, dried scallop turnip cakes and several kinds of steamed rice noodles (lasagna sized pasta wrapped over fillings like a tamale). Sliced eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste is a house specialty, and worth the distinction. Chicken and cabbage wrapped in lotus leaves were good, but the sticky rice in lotus leaf was an epiphany. Flavors included lotus seepage and Chinese sausage, black ear fungus and baby shrimp.

Some items were incorrectly translated on the menu, “scallops and sharks fin” was actually shrimp, etc. So be sure to clarify ingredients if you have allergies or aversions.

Side dishes

Kamodo Klub is set for an October opening in the Court Avenue district and will include a sushi bar… New Saigon (1541 6th Ave.) launched the city’s first-ever Vietnamese buffet. CV

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Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
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