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By Jim Duncan Reviews

The King & I
1821 22nd St., West Des Moines

Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
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.

Side dishes

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 reservations. CV

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