Pho All Seasons returns4/2/2014
Pho All Seasons built a loyal customer base on East Ninth Street during the previous decade. Four years ago, the family was told they needed to add a prohibitively expensive grease trap. So they closed their café and moved to Arizona where they had built a second restaurant. Business was not as good in Arizona as it had been in Iowa, though, so last year they jumped at an offer to sell their place in Phoenix. Thu Phan, chef and mother of the family, then moved back to Des Moines with her daughters and began converting an old Happy Joe’s building that had briefly served as a sushi joint. The only thing left behind that was useful to the family was a rice cooker. Still they completely rebuilt the kitchen, cleaned up the front end and converted a giant sign out front with their logo, all in one month.
Pho All Seasons is now open and bustling, particularly at lunch hour. While most of chef Thu’s preferred dishes returned, the menu is shorter and more sophisticated — it fits on two sides of a single page. Chao tom ($5 for two) stars among appetizers, meticulously blending fresh shrimp, garlic and shallots into a paste that is molded around sugar cane stalks. They are grilled crisply, then topped with peanuts and scallions to be served with a house-made sweet peanut sauce. They were served with a side of lettuce topped with carrot and daikon strips. The sugar cane infused the shrimp, and the shrimp infused the sugar cane. Banh xeo ($5) delivered an epiphany about how good inexpensive dishes can be. Those rice flour crepes were stuffed with shrimp, sliced pork, bean sprouts and scallions. My crepe had an omelet-like texture and the flavor of unami. It was served with a large salad of root vegetables and lettuce, and it ranked with a similar dish I tried at San Francisco’s The Slanted Door, which cost $17 there.
Cha gio tom cheese ($3 for two) delivered shrimp that were rubbed in cream cheese, stuffed in a thin rice paper wrapper and deep fried. Served with a sweet and sour sauce, it was a low-calorie variation on crab Rangoon with the cream cheese spiking the seafood rather than the other way around. Pan-fried pot stickers ($4 for six) were perfectly executed and served with a homemade sauce of sesame, ginger and soy. Muc chien don ($7), a take on salt-and-pepper calamari, were tenderized, breaded, fried and served with onions, ginger and slices of pepper that looked much hotter than they tasted. Chicken wings, six kinds of spring roll, egg rolls and a combo of the two were also sold.
Pho ($7-$10) is the namesake of this café because of chef Thu’s beef neck bone stock and its seductive aroma. Choose from eight proteins to mix with the rice noodles and a plate of sprouts, basil, limes and chilies that is always served with pho. Other soups include: wontons in clear broth, roasted duck with shiitakes and egg noodles, beef/pork broth soup and a chicken salad soup in chicken broth with glass noodles.
Entrees included carpaccio in lime sauce ($10), papaya salad ($7), eight kinds of bun ($8), a noodle dish with lemon sauce, Korean-style short ribs ($8.50), five spice pork chops ($8) and many combinations of stir-fried rice and noodle dishes ($8-$9). My favorite was a grilled chicken breast that was marinated in lemongrass and served with broken jasmine rice, a very short grain starch with a fascinating texture. Fresh fruit bubble teas and traditional Southeast Asian drinks comprised the dessert menu.
Side Dishes A-2, Jason Simon’s new scratch pasta and wood-fired pizza café on Ingersoll, will open April 15. A daily happy hour (3-6 p.m.) will offer half-price pizza, draft beers and wines. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.