First and last chances at great stuff8/5/2015
Traditionally, Des Moines diners resisted change. Restaurateurs have told me that customers complain about the slightest menu alteration. Panic ensues when a restaurant is sold, or, Lord forbid, closes. It’s been a trying couple of years for fans of everlasting tradition. Linda Bisignano (Chuck’s) died. Gino Fenu sold his namesake café, which shut down soon thereafter. Jerry Talerico retired and sold Sam & Gabe’s. Dahl’s vanished from earth. Robert Sanda sold Tally’s.
This July brought two more shocks with Osmin “Mao” Heineman selling her King & I, and Café di Scala announcing it will cease operating as a public restaurant in January. Heinema tried new things here, like an all-female staff (she did eventually hire a male employee). Most customers returned for her big personality. After 20 years of operating a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, Nishapat Meesangkaew and family took over and renamed the place Eat Thai, Thai Eatery.
Thai cafés in Des Moines are remarkably consistent. Menus are quite similar. Sometimes this is annoying. Why is yellow curry almost always made with potatoes and carrots, red curry with basil and green curry with eggplant?
It is thus at Eat Thai, but other things have changed, too. For instance, spicy eggplant is prepared with more attention to eggplant than usual. Most places stir-fry a little eggplant at high heat with basil and lots of bell peppers and onions, then dump that entire wok on a plate. Here such dishes are called “sautés,” implying they are slow-cooked. My dish had been carefully presented with a huge amount of Asian eggplant logs stacked three deep under other vegetables and topped with roasted duck, which was served with their delicious skin attached.
Some changes are subtractions. I could not find Mao’s “haw moks” (fish steamed in egg custards inside banana leaves) on the menu. Pho and other Vietnamese dishes were also purged, though there is still a full sushi menu that includes refreshing calamari, squid and octopus salads. They are not the same thing. Tom kha (soup with coconut milk) was made with large pieces of galangal, ginger’s wild sister. This is for flavor, not for convenience, as the pieces cannot be chewed. I always prefer flavor. Lime leaves, western mushrooms, basil and chilies added more. A $2 shrimp substitution brought four jumbo shrimp. Tom yum gai (chicken soup) was similarly flavor-forward with lemongrass, chilies and lime juice creating a sweet and sour element. Poh tak (seafood soup) was made with galangal and lemongrass, plus squid, shrimp, fish, mussels, scallops and mushrooms.
Lettuce wraps were offered in two versions — one with larb (ground meat salad) and one with choices of regular house proteins in hot sauce. Both employed iceberg leaves. There was no dessert menu, but a blackboard included a daily dessert special. There is a full bar.
I hustled to Café di Scala days after its announced crossover to “private events only” status. They will likely be packed through January. Minneapolis’ Nye’s Polonaise Bar (Esquire’s best bar in America) announced it was closing in October after 65 years. Business became so good that they will stay open until January. Like that place, di Scala occupies a beloved 19th-century building. I recently had a roasted fennel soup there with three kinds of heirloom onions and lardo. It immediately entered my soup hall of fame. I also tried an excellent eggplant and ricotta cappelacci dish in a gagglioppo (wine) jus, and a bracciole that was made with pork shoulder instead of sirloin. That was sensational with gnocchi in a pan sauce. Walnut cake with marscapone frosting was made by the café’s pastry chef, whose mastery of wedding cakes helped lead them to their new business plan. CV
EAT THAI, THAI EATERY
1821 22nd St., No. 103,
West Des Moines
Mon. – Fri. 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.; 5-9
p.m.; Sat. – Sun. noon – 9 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.