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By Jim Duncan Reviews

1107 E. University Ave., 266-0664
Daily 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Fawn’s — this restaurant life

Fawn Soulinthavong met her future husband when she was a student waiting tables at the Golden Dragon and Scott Soulinthavong was its chef. After marrying, she worked in state government agencies while he continued cooking. The bureaucrat and the chef rarely saw each other, so they opened their own restaurant — Siam in Ankeny. After 17 years, they sold that place. Then Fawn started missing the restaurant life. So, the couple built a new cafe, this time with their kids helping. Beautifully appointed with faux limestone floors, gentle colors and new furniture, Fawn’s is considerably bigger and more multicultural than the Ankeny café.

“I wanted an urban atmosphere with more diversity. Between us, my husband and I have four different (ethnicities amongst) parents — one Laotian, one Vietnamese, one Chinese and one Thai. We both learned to cook from our parents and grandparents, so our menu is pretty multinational. This address was perfect, but it needed some work — it had been Jacko’s Auto Parts and Garage. I wanted to present a really nice place for people to come and eat,” she explained while moving from table to table.

“I miss (working for) the State. I miss the short hours, paid vacations and great benefits. But when I wasn’t running a restaurant, I missed the customers more. I love this life, or I wouldn’t be open seven days a week,” she laughed.

Fawn’s opened during one of the iciest Decembers in Des Moines history, yet its parking lot and sidewalk were safe and clean on each of my four visits. (Twice I ended up at Fawn’s because first choice restaurants looked perilous.) A bucket of salt in the foray might not make the feng shui manual, but it indicates a thoughtful host.

Fawn’s menu respected all four of the owners’ ethnic heritages. From the Lao menu, I tried some good laap (a meat ceviche with greens) and excellent sticky rice. From the Vietnamese menu, I sampled pho, a beef noodle soup made from bone stock but with a twist here. Fawn said she does not bake bones prior to simmering. “We boil raw bones for 15 minutes and throw out that water. Then we make stock.” Served with rice sticks and a choice of meats, plus greens, sprouts and condiments, this is a meal in a bowl — but not the richest broth in town.

Fawn’s Thai menu was the most interesting and versatile. Most dishes were offered with a choice of three meats, shrimp or tofu and a choice of styles. “Angry” dishes were made with a brown sauce and with seeded Mexican peppers — degrees of heat adjusted with chili oil. “Curry” dishes were made with fresh pastes of seeded chilies, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, garlic and other vegetables. “Three flavor” dishes were vegetable stir frys with a “sweet and sour” kick. A “whole angry catfish,” served without its head, was my favorite application, though the fish was small. My favorite stir fry dishes were “ginger” style. Chicken, shrimp and beef orders were more reliable than pork. I really enjoyed a “kana” dish, which starred a vegetable sometimes known as broccoli rabe.

Chinese dishes are quite popular here. My fried noodle orders were served softer than usual, with typical accompaniments — all fresh. Fawn said that even their “sweet & sour” sauces are made exclusively with fresh fruits and vegetables, never processed sauce mixes or canned stuff. Prices are attractive. I found that $16 dinners and $8 lunch tabs yielded snack-sized leftovers to take home, cheerfully packaged for me. Carryout orders were ready on time.

Bottom line — Fawn’s ranks with Pho Ha Dao and Cool Basil for providing the nicest ambiance among Des Moines’ S.E. Asian cafés. Its multiethnic menu is reliable, if not innovative. It’s a good bargain with excellent service.

Side Dishes
Star Destinations announced 2009 foodie tours to St. Louis, Minneapolis, Galena, New York, Tuscany. Nauvoo-Keokuk, Waterloo and Des Moines — (800) 284-4440. CV

Food Dude Reviews 2009 2008 Reviews ~ 2007 Reviews
Best & Worst of 2008 (01-01-09) Maxie’s (01-08-09)

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