Blu, hip and on hallowed ground1/22/2014
The yellow building at 215 E. Walnut is hallowed ground in Des Moines’ cultural history. It’s where nurse Benichang “Beni” Luangaram converted an automobile garage into the city’s first Thai restaurant. After seven months of remodeling, she recruited her sister Somchai “T” Luangaram to be chef and her then husband Prasong “Pak” Nurack to host. “Pak,” now a star player in the Thai Parliament, made weekly political polls, and his “around the world beer club” popular. The place became nationally known as the quasi headquarters for Michael Dukakis’ drive to the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1988 elections. Beni sold the café after a 20-year run. It has remained mostly Thai through several short-lived reincarnations, the latest of which is called Blu.
Three dining rooms shared a common distraction. All were uncomfortably chilly on recent visits, the two with windows more so than the other. On one trip I arrived a few minutes ahead of a friend. I was seated by a hostess, who assured me she would direct my friend when she arrived. Instead my friend was seated in another room after being told she was the only single diner in the café. After several minutes she got up to see for herself. Tables were covered in linens and Thai embroidery with glass tops. Cloth flowers and plastic foliage were set in jars of pebbles.
From a full sushi menu, I tried a generous calamari salad ($5) that managed to avoid the chewy textures that less-expert cooking delivers. A yellowtail roll ($6) brought undistinguished fish with jalapeno chunks, black sesame, chili sauce and a house mayo. A tempura shrimp roll ($7) delivered lots of cream cheese and very little shrimp along with cucumber, roe and unagi (eel) sauce. Soups ($4-$10) included good versions of Thai regulars tom yum and tom kha with distinct flavors of lemongrass, galangal and lime juice. Pho, the Vietnamese superstar of winter, included a hearty beef stock, brisket, meatballs and roast beef, with its usual plate of bean sprouts, cilantro, basil and lime.
Noodles were the main ingredient in the best dishes I tried. Both pad Thai ($7-$10) and garlic noodles ($8-$11) included excellent pasta and fresh vegetables. The former added peanuts, the latter plenty of fresh garlic. All came with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu or braised gluten. Shrimp was a $3 upgrade, and the superb quality of Blu’s shrimp fully justified that.
Curries — red, green, yellow, massamun and Penang ($9-$11) — were heavily sweetened with coconut. I found it a good rule of thumb to increase my orders by one level of hotness over what I would request at other Thai restaurants. Carrots seemed to be the consistent ingredient in all versions. That was also the case in a squash curry, in which the squash had been reduced until it disappeared into the broth. Three flavors of fish ($13-$14) brought chewy cod and lots of pineapple in a sauce so sweet it smothered the other two flavors.
Hot tea ($2) was stylishly served in loose-leaf form. Seven wines ($7/glass, $28/bottle), five sakes ($7-$10) and 17 beers ($2.75-$4.50) were offered.
Bottom line — Full and boisterous on weekday nights, slightly less so during lunch hours, Blu is as young and hip as blu cigarettes and blu-rays.
Side Dishes Michael Leo (Café Salzburg) has acquired a building on Indianola Avenue and is planning a European bakery plus an upscale wine bar… The San Francisco city attorney and New York state attorney general partnered to investigate Monster Beverage Corp.’s marketing to children. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.