W China thinks big4/29/2015
Thanks to Lost Des Moines’ Facebook page, the city’s restaurant history is becoming better known. I recently was reminded of Davey’s Supper Club and Curly’s Dinner Club. Both were Highland Park legends before the 1960s. Like the Chickadee (where Gino’s now stands), they specialized in fried chicken. In fact, fried chicken was priced higher than T-bone steaks on menus from the 1950s. Thanks to some links found on Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance’s social media pages, I learned that chicken was the dearest of meats in the Midwest before the industrial agriculture age began in earnest during the Nixon Administration. In fact, when Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) launched its first advertising campaign, the tagline was “It’s not just for Sunday anymore.”
Sometimes the more things change, the less they remain the same. Last week, as Iowa chickens were being sacrificed by the millions, I visited the current largest restaurant in Highland Park. W China sits in Park Fair Mall, Des Moines’ original shopping mall. The changes to the mall reflect the development of Highland Park since it opened in 1956, fully leased to popular commercial stores like WT Grant, Woolworth’s, Frankel’s, Katz, Dial Finance, Walt’s Jewelry and Triplett’s Toy Town. By the mid-1970s, after rival Merle Hay Mall fully enclosed and doubled its size, Park Fair was less than half occupied. That has not changed much and barely half of the current tenants are retailers. Now there are many agencies like Culture of Recovery Youth, Art Force Iowa, Home Health Care, Senior Center and Network Refugee Center.
W China Buffet fits its neighborhood like a silk glove. A lunch special menu offers 25 different platters, including some shrimp entrees, for $6. The dinner menu has 142 items, priced $2.30 – $11.25. Most such orders are “to go.” The crowds come for the all you can eat buffets ($9 – $15 with tax). About 60 items are served under Christmas lights at each meal. Special Sunday buffets include crab legs. Lobster, frog legs, scallops and pigeon are served for large parties, with capacity to seat 300 for such events.
The buffets I sampled did not compare well with those in the western suburbs. The only green foods I have seen are iceberg lettuce, broccoli and green beans. Sauces were mostly very sweet. Salads and desserts were reminiscent of the 1950s: Jell-O, canned peaches, deviled eggs, bottled dressings. Now inexpensive, chicken dishes often outnumbered those with pork, beef, seafood and tofu combined. I counted 11 chicken dishes, one of pork, one of beef and five of seafood on my most recent visit. There were some dishes I am not used to seeing – peanut butter chicken, cheese stuffed mussels, cheese with crab sticks.
This seemed to be what the market wanted. Crowds devoured these buffets. For anyone who wants more variety, though, W has a kicker. You can order any dish on the menu if it’s not on the buffet, and it will be cooked fresh for you at no additional charge.
Side Dishes: The Triangle Tap now hosts therapeutic karaoke for special needs students, on Mondays 5:30-8 p.m… Great things are happening for Central Iowa chefs on the coasts. Former south sider Justin Willis is leaving Restaurant Beck (where he was a James Beard best chef semifinalist) to open Sorella, an Italian café in Portland’s Nye Beach. Brea Ann Leighton (Baru, Alba) is running a pop up restaurant business in San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza. All food is foraged. She is also teaching culinary arts in a Sebastopol Middle School. Eric Ziebold (Aunt Maude’s) closed his four star City Zen (where he was a James Beard best chef winner) to open two new places this year in downtown Washington, D.C. His menu for Kinship has four sections: ingredients, craft, history and decadence. CV
W CHINA BUFFET
Park Fair Mall, 100 E. Euclid Ave.,
Mon. – Wed, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Thurs.
– Sun. 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.