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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com

Valley Junction (VJ) is now the most successfully branded name among metro neighborhoods, but the words get stuck on my tongue. In my formative years, “VJ” was a defunct train station and the Fifth Street strip was “downtown West Des Moines.” That’s where I rode in mom’s shopping cart at Way’s Market, and where I was taken for haircuts, pharmacy orders, banking, movies and dreaded doctor’s appointments. None of those services can be found on Fifth Street anymore, having been replaced by jewelry design groups, galleries, specialty shops and cafés, just as Gallery Walk (on Friday) supplanted high school homecoming as the big Fall event. Yet the new shops resurrected VJ and preserved an historic part of Iowa.

While the transformation took shape in the ’70s, VJ didn’t really come of age till the early ’90s, when Su Nong remodeled doctors’ offices and brought dim sum to Iowa and tablecloth service to pan Asian cuisine. Antique shoppers began lingering over lunch. Other stylish cafés followed until Nong cut back her hours. Some patrons trace the peak of VJ civilization to the day Café Su stopped serving lunch some five years ago. Alas, the downslide days are over. The venerable café is again open at midday (Wednesdays through Fridays with Saturdays soon to come). As if that weren’t enough to warm the hearts of discriminating shoppers, Nong’s dim sum menu has been revived, too.

With a nostalgic nod to the ’70s and ’80s, Café Su defines “VJ style.” On my visits, music exhausted the Leonard Cohen-Stan Getz-Tony Bennett repertoire and art included David Driesbach’s drug period and one of Robert Indiana’s once ubiquitous “LOVE” prints. I have not seen so large a female-to-male lunch ratio since the Younkers Tea Room closed. I even saw a lady using a compact mirror to powder her nose. Flowers, both real and glass, were artful. Paper lanterns, ceiling fans, neon and corrugated aluminum crafted a time-tripping milieu. A picture window looked out upon a more modern scene — a very organic garden of rusted sculpture, weeds and dead sunflowers.

The dim sum menu (Friday and Saturday only) included 34 small plates ranging from the very familiar (crab Rangoon and egg rolls) and the recently typical (spring rolls and pork buns) to pure Cantonese dishes one rarely finds in Iowa (red bean puffs and lotus pastries) and even some fusion creations (curry beef rolls). Rice balls were delightful golden concoctions of sticky rice and seasonings fried crisp in hot oil. Mustard wraps brought moist green leaf wrappers and tightly formed pork filling. Curry beef rolls tasted like South Asian street food at its best, think samosa fillings in pot sticker wrappers. Several kinds of dumplings and shu mai (stuffed dumplings formed to look like budding flowers) were spot-on, wok-fried so that the wrappers had multiple textures, not deep-fried to a consistent crisp. Spinach chicken dumplings and lotus buns are worth a weeklong wait.

That’s not always possible though, so the regular menu must tide one over during the workweek. Fortunately, nearly half the dim sum items can be found there, too. Substantial entrées include Chinese and Southeast Asian wok-fried dishes characterized by fresh sauces and vegetables — even the water chestnuts were crisp. These dishes are healthy, chicken and tofu outnumber pork and beef choices. The dessert tray included outsourced cheesecakes and several original manifestations of Su Nong’s obsession with chocolate cake. The beer menu was three pages long while the wine list ran $12 to $65, fitting a place that holds the entrée price level well under the $15 threshold.

Café Su
225 5th St., West Des Moines
274-5102
Wed. - Fri. (Sat. in November - December) 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Sun. and Tues. - Thurs. 4:30 - 10 p.m.
Fri. - Sat. 4:30 - 11 p.m.

Side dishes
Tienda Michoacan in Valley Junction is now making fresh grilled tacos and burritos… Researchers at the University of Maine have created the first potato-derived plastics. Bet you thought that had already been done with processed frozen fries. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
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Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
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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)
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Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
El Sabor Latino (6-28-07) Crouse Café (7-5-07)
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