The King & I
1821 22nd St., West Des
Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. - 2:30
Mon.-Sat. 4:30 - 9 p.m.
The King & I
The King & I is a dream come
true for Des Moines, as much as
for chef-owner Osmin “Mao” Heineman.
She comes from Phetchabun, Thailand,
a city situated much like Des
Moines in the midst of agricultural
abundance. Heineman grew up in
a farm family and dreamed of becoming
a chef. She attended culinary
college in a food-obsessed nation,
but economics forced her to teach
rather than cook after graduating.
(Yes, teachers are paid more than
chefs in some countries.) Heineman
saved her money for seven years
and then moved to Seattle where
she met her husband and opened
several critically acclaimed Thai
restaurants. Family matters brought
her to her husband’s home state
where she opened The King &
I in 2001. It’s now in its second
location, in a plain West Des
Moines building on 22nd Street
best known as “the strip mall
in front of Earl May.”
Don’t let the unpretentious
surroundings fool you, this restaurant
is a state treasure and Mao ranks
with the top chefs in Iowa. We
are now entering the time of year
when her work in the garden bears
fruit for her customers, when
plated foods have been harvested
within a few hours of cooking.
If you have never understood why
so many serious people think “tom
yum kai” is the best chicken soup
in the world, it’s probably because
you’ve never tasted a version
made with fresh, homegrown lemongrass.
Mao serves such for a mere $3.
Her Thai dumplings were a familiar
version of ground pork in fresh
pasta wrapper, but their accompanying
black beans sauce with fresh ginger
was anything but typical. Like
everything in this health-conscious
kitchen, they can be ordered fried
or steamed. Tempura dishes were
also given a personal treatment,
with crispy, colorful cornstarch
replacing the lighter Panko. Green
papaya salad, a very difficult
dish to make in Iowa, was perfect
— crunchy as daikon and tart without
being sour while fresh garlic
and peas added bite and sweetness.
Mao’s special “waterfall salad”
tossed sliced New York strip over
roasted rice flour and fresh greens
in hot dressing.
Familiar Thai staples are a
mainstay of this menu. Curries
mixed coconut milk’s sweetness
with pastes composed of home grown
chilies, garlic, ginger and galangal,
which is ginger’s wild sister.
My dish generously included fresh
bamboo shoots and “ma-khue puang,”
those round vegetables sometimes
called “Thai eggplants.” Contrasting
flavors danced happily in stir-fry
dishes and summer rolls in which
meat and eggs played with noodles
and herbs in rice flour wraps.
Specialties were more impressive.
Divinely deep-fried fish cakes
presented combinations of green
bean, fish and chilies. “Golden
cups” delivered the fleshy, illegitimate
offspring of a dessert pastry
and a Siamese shrimp boat. “Rama’s
shower” retold a Hindu legend
by subjecting spinach to extreme
temperatures that crisped that
vegetable until it begged for
a cooling bath of peanut sauce.
“Haw mok” is probably Mao's forte.
These dishes require steaming
heavily seasoned fish or seafood
in custards of egg yolks and coconut
milk, inside cups made out of
banana leaves. I tried a salmon
version in which fish and cabbage
seemed to have dehydrated and
then replenished their flesh with
custard and chopped lime leaves.
The texture was more like that
of flaked, hard cheeses — it dissolved
on my tongue, when I had the patience
to allow it to.
Sticky rice with fresh mango,
forbidden rice in coconut milk
and fried, sweet bananas topped
the dessert menu. A short wine
and saki listed included glasses
for $4. The King & I is a
great bargain, with lunch specials
under $6, appetizers under $8,
and entrées under $17.
VICORP Restaurants Inc. (Village
Inn, Bakers Square) won 45 blue
ribbons, in just 165 categories,
at the American Pie Council’s
2008 National Pie Championships.
All non-fruit VICORP pies still
use original recipes of Des Moines’
Kay Compiano. … Casa di Vino will
host an intrepid pairing of the
best wines and the worst foods
— “Wine & Junk Food” on June
10, 5 - 7 p.m. Call 253-9463 for
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