Clay pots star at H’s Pho & Restaurant10/29/2014
For whatever reasons, geography has swayed the way restaurants cluster in the metro. Local independents thrive in the inner city, and big chains in the far-flung suburbs. It’s been so dramatic that after the opening of the all-chain Jordan Creek Town Center, one Des Moines restaurateur proposed that downtown needed a moratorium on independent cafés and the western suburbs needed one on chains.
Things are changing. Panera does quite well downtown where Jimmy John’s has staked its flag. The intersection of 128th and University in Clive has become an oasis of unique restaurants with Trostel’s Dish, Mandarin, Zuzap and Table 128. Waukee seems to be next. Steakhouses Rube’s and John & Nick’s thrive there. Louie’s Wine Dive has a sign up and looks like it’s coming on line by winter. Phoenix and Los Tres Amigos pack fans in. The Datebook Diner deemed Shanghai worthy of a four-star review. Cozy Café opened nearly identical stores a few blocks apart on Hickman.
The happiest part of Waukee’s restaurant resurgence is H’s Pho & Restaurant. Hop Nguyen’s new Vietnamese café in Liberty Park mall opened this summer. Red and green walls (the colors of good fortune and prosperity) and paintings of eight (lucky number) wild horses provide appropriate feng shui. Fresh lime and coconut juices and iced Vietnamese coffee offer new drink options.
The place is named after pho for good reason. I can smell bone stocks cooking as soon as I open the door. As is usual in all area pho shops, rice vermicelli is served in a bowl of stock with scallions, onions, bean sprouts, fresh basil, cilantro, chopped chilies and lime. One chooses among rare beef round roast, brisket, meatballs, fatty brisket, tendon, tripe, flank steak, tofu, chicken and seafood for toppings.
What’s not usual is that H’s Pho offers pork stock as well as beef. “Hu tieu” offers a choice of rice vermicelli or thin Chinese egg noodles. Toppings include pork loin, shrimp and seafood (which was heavy with a scallop-shaped form of what seemed to be surimi). “Hoahn thanh” is a pork stock soup with pork stuffed wontons and roast loin. “Mi hoanh thanh” combines those two styles of pork soup. The only other place in Iowa I have found pork stock variations of pho is Café Lily. It’s a shame, too. Pork bones are so plentiful here that La Quercia sometimes begs people to take them.
Hop ran a bakery in Seattle before moving to Iowa, and his “banh mi” sandwiches feature homemade rice flour baguettes, homemade mayonnaise, pickled carrots, daikon radishes, cucumbers, chilies and cilantro. Grilled pork, stir-fried beef, chicken and tofu provide fillers. Appetizers were familiar fare — spring rolls, egg rolls, wings, crab Rangoon and crispy tofu. Noodle and rice stir-fry dishes were excellent, with more baby bok choy than one finds at other places. As a super bonus, each entrée I ordered was served with a complimentary cup of beef stock. The stars among them were the chef signatures for two people. One featured salmon and vegetables. The “little hot pot” came in a large clay pot, bubbling when the lid was removed and charred on the bottom like old-fashioned Dutch oven in a campfire. The beef in that dish was so tender it is only allowed out at night in Waukee, and only when chaperoned by shiitakes, carrots, onions, baby bok choy and peas.
Side Dishes: Longtime restaurateurs Tommy Farrell and Bob Edsel have revived Jukebox Saturday Night, one of the catalysts of Court Avenue’s rebirth in the 1970s. Now in the former Drink venue on Hickman, the nostalgia club features Chicago Italian beef sandwiches with homemade giardiniera and bread, fried chicken and deep-dish pizza. The latter is a flaky, thin crust version unique to Des Moines. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.H’s Pho 286 W. Hickman Road, 987-7571 Mon., Wed. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sun. 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.