Great China is great restaurant7/3/2013
To stay current, food writers pay considerable attention to what’s new. Sometimes a place of significant excellence can slip into the deeper levels of our consciousness. After writing about a disappointing visit to a Chinese restaurant recently, three different readers reminded me of such a place.
Great China has occupied a corner of Cobblestone Market since 1988. During the ’80s, Chinese restaurants were expanding as fast as strip malls in the suburbs. Many are long gone, chased by the expansion of buffets in later decades. Great China survived on excellence. Upon entering, one sees a photo of owner Chef Cheng at a table full of animals he had carved out of vegetables. He is a master of vegetable carving, a culinary art form as revered in Asia as barbecue is in America. For more than 50 years, Cheng has been working in kitchens, including some of the largest hotels in Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei. He is a living culinary legend of Iowa, and he’s still running the kitchen of this family restaurant.
Great China was in great shape physically. Carpeting, Chinese lanterns and carved furniture were so well maintained they looked brand new. Windows were clean on recent visits during Des Moines’ monsoon season. Waiters wore black slacks, white ties and black vests. Meals were served on real china.
Little culinary clues suggested this place is special. Condiment jars on each table were filled with homemade sweet sauce and mustard. The ubiquitous corn-sweetened duck sauce that most local places push does not meet Cheng’s standards. His sauce is made with real fruit and, I think, a touch of citrus. Similarly, his ginger fish, Szechuan fish and pineapple fish dishes used walleye, substantially more expensive than the usual tilapia or pollock. Each lunch was served with a complimentary piece of fried chicken wing, an egg roll and a cup of soup. Each dinner entrée was served with a complimentary egg roll or crab Rangoon.
Great China still makes classic Cantonese and Mandarin dishes that have disappeared from many local Iowa menus, even abalone with black mushrooms. Cheng’s version of “sharks fin soup” was made French Laundry style, duplicating the texture of shark’s fin (which has no taste) without consuming any part of an endangered species. He substituted fish maw, which, like shark’s fin, is a member of the “Big Four” luxury foods of Chinese tradition. These were individually ladled tableside. Rich chicken stock was topped with meringue of egg whites. Scallions had been sliced into tiny needles as only a master of knives could. A $9 serving filled four bowls and simulated my memories of a decadence that cost six times as much the last time I encountered it.
Peking duck is also served tableside here, though Cheng asks for 24-hours notice. We settled for crispy duck ($12.50) that delightfully delivered both crisp skin and moist meat that had been marinated in five spices, served with a plum sauce on a bed of sliced cabbage and razor thin carrots. Sesame lamb was similarly both crunchy and moist inside with a delicious sesame-covered sauce with broccoli. Moo goo gai pan ($9.25) delivered incredibly moist chicken breast with black mushrooms, water chestnuts and snow peas in a subtle ginger sauce. Home-style beef ($11) showed off knife skills again with tender slices of beef, carrots and celery in spicy hoisin sauce.
Water glasses were refilled before they were empty. Flaming desserts ($5) were served tableside. Managers checked on each table. Leftovers were boxed and bagged by staff. Bottom line: I have not found a better Chinese restaurant in Iowa.
Side Dishes: Des Moines Art Center’s café will be managed by Baru66 beginning in mid September. Its first lunch is reservation-only and filling fast. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.