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Food Dude

Vietnamese Café has big personality


A noodle bowl with roast pork served at Vietnam Café, 3800 Merle Hay Road (Merle Hay Mall Food Court); 252-8713; open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

A noodle bowl with roast pork served at Vietnam Café, 3800 Merle Hay Road (Merle Hay Mall Food Court); 252-8713; open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Food courts have played an important role as entry level positions for American entrepreneurship. The historic indoor markets of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City and Detroit have all launched famous restaurants and food brands that became household names. Even though those places had a century head start on Des Moines, our downtown food courts have also produced some impressive start-ups including Café di Scala (Metro Market), Lucca, La Mie and Basil Properi’s (all in Locust Mall). Outside the downtown area, food courts here have tended to feature nationally known franchises like Sbarro, Chik-fil-A, Wendy’s, Subway, Maid-Rite, etc. Berkshire Hathaway properties Orange Julius and Dairy Queen are so prevalent in shopping malls that company chief Warren Buffet has been called the grand daddy of the food court.

As suburbs sprawl further away from the center of town, so do their brand-name franchisers. That opens opportunities for aspiring independent restaurateurs in older shopping malls. One such lady, Brenda Tran, celebrated her third anniversary this month in the Merle Hay Mall food court. Tran came to Iowa from Vietnam during the great immigration led by former Gov. Robert Ray. In many ways, her Vietnam Café is a throwback to a more personal time in American culture. Because of the long hours food court operators are required to be open, Tran is often running the kitchen, service counter, dishwasher and cashier stations by herself. She does so with indefatigable energy.

“One customer says I move so fast that I make him dizzy,” she laughs. She wears a constant smile and calls just about everyone “hon” with endearment.

Such personal touches win converts in a milieu usually characterized by disinterested minimum wage employees. Every time I have visited Vietnam Café the last year or two, it has been the busiest bay in the entire food court. Of course, the cooking has something to do with that, too. As if she didn’t have enough to do, Tran takes no short cuts. She cooks to order. Eggrolls are always hot from the fryer. They do not sit around under heat lamps like so many fast food french fries do. One fire on her stove is always employed making beef stock for her pho. She simmers shin bones for 12 hours in that endeavor and does so daily.

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The result is marvelous. Her pho, served in the same non-disposable bowls one finds at most sit-down restaurants, is as distinctive as any in town, rich in beef flavor with a slight glistening of fat. Because of the food court service line, pho is prepared to order. Bean sprouts, basil, chili oil, fish sauce, cilantro, parsley, etc., are added by the cooks, not left tableside for diners to add themselves. Meat choices are limited to rare beef and onions, meatballs and tendon. Rare beef will be served separately if requested. Pho is also made with chicken stock to which shrimp or chicken can be added. Pork soup and crab soup also delight cold weather diners.

Tran’s bun (vermicelli bowls) is probably the non-soup specialty of the house. Hot noodles were served with cool chopped lettuce and cucumber plus a choice of pork, chicken or beef. Her grilled pork may be the spiciest in town, resembling adobo or tandori more than most other Vietnamese pork in town. Pork chop dishes were served with rice, lettuce, cucumber and pickled carrots, plus a perfectly fried egg. Teriyaki and Chinese sausage (lap chong) rounded out the regular menu but look for specials, too, particularly roast duck and duck soup.

Side Dishes Sbrocco was named one of OpenTable’s Top 100 Restaurants in the U.S., with the most notable wine lists… Cedar Ridge announced its long awaited pear brandy, the latest Iowa distillery product, is ready for market. CV

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