Tale of two holidays6/5/2013
Mother’s Day and Memorial Day left me scrambling for places to eat. On both occasions, I met friends at a pre-arranged spot after confirming that they would be open. They weren’t, though their websites, front doors and Facebook pages all indicated they were. It must be really difficult to post a Facebook message. Both times we fell back on a pansophy gleaned from travel — Asian restaurants are often open when others are closed.
The King and I was not only open on Mother’s Day, but chef-owner Osmin “Mao” Heineman was dispensing long-stemmed roses. She had just returned from her native Phetchabun — in her words, “a dirt poor” farming community in Thailand. She had gone there to install water purification systems that she had underwritten. She’s good at saving money. That’s also how she made it out of Phetchabun, first to culinary college in Bangkok, then to America. We could not have found a more appropriate Mother’s Day host.
Warm weather is actually the best time for the classic soups of Thailand. Exotic ingredients like lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves are fresher and more local now. Mao makes chile pastes from fresh ingredients, too. The 1997 international financial crisis, which started in Thailand, is named after “tom yam kung.” At King and I, that soup featured shrimp in seafood stock with the ingredients mentioned above, plus fish sauce, fresh lime juice and mushrooms. We also tried two $3 soups that are the best values in Iowa. “Tom yum kai” is a chicken stock soup rich in sweet and spicy flavors. “Tom ka kai” is the same soup with coconut milk added.
King and I distinguishes itself in nuances. Thai dumplings, fried or steamed, are served with a black bean sauce. Colorful corn starch replaces the lighter panko in the tempura dishes. “Waterfall salad” tosses sliced New York strip over roasted rice flour and fresh greens in hot dressing. “Haw mok” dishes steam heavily seasoned fish or seafood in custards of egg yolks and coconut milk, inside cups made out of banana leaves. A Mother’s Day special presented two gorgeously seared lamb loin chops in a yellow coconut curry. Sticky rice was steeped in coconut milk, fried and served with fresh mango slices.
On a similar Memorial Day scramble, I ended up at The Mandarin. That was the first place in Iowa I remember serving Peking duck in the classic manner. It also taught me to love baby bok choy long before supermarkets here knew what that was. The café had reopened last year in Clive, a few years after closing its Beaverdale store, and I was excited to find it open.
Things had changed. Its Chinese menu is short and inexpensive now. There was no duck of any kind. Bok choy and other Chinese vegetables had been replaced, on every plate we ordered, with a lazy medley (broccoli florets, baby carrots, onions, green peppers and potatoes) that are more appropriate to Denny’s than a Chinese restaurant. Stir fry dishes showed no knife skills. Honey walnut prawns were overly sweetened with both honey and brown sugar. Tofu had the texture of baby food. Water glasses were not refilled for a full 30 minutes. Potatoes were so undercooked we would have sent them back had anyone asked. Even though we talked for 20 minutes after paying our bill, no one picked up our plates, nor asked if we wanted “take home” boxes for our considerable leftovers. We didn’t.
Side Dishes Tally’s new menu ups its offerings of gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.The Mandarin 1250 N.W. 128th St., Clive, 327-5988 Mon. – Thurs. 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., 4 p.m. – 9 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., 4 p.m. 10 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sun. 11a.m. – 9 p.m.