By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
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
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.
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
on this story | Return