Fans of traditional Chinese restaurants absorbed a double shock at year’s end. It had been announced for months that Kwong Tung would close after New Year’s Eve following more than a half century of service. It was barely known that Great China was also closing after 27 years. Those were far and away my two favorite places for Chinese food. They represented facets of Chinese culinary tradition that are rarely found in Iowa. Kwong Tung had the best dim sum service in town. Great China prepared classic Mandarin and Cantonese dishes like Peking duck and shark’s fin soup. They cooked with maw, one of the five luxury ingredients in Mandarin lore.
On a quotidian level, they were more in the style of coastal Chinese-American restaurants. Dishes tasted more like the foods employed and less like sweetened sauces. Most Chinese cafés in metro Des Moines go the opposite way. These dearly departed places also used more ingredients that one expects on American coasts but not in Iowa — baby bok choy, bitter melon, chicken’s feet, taro root, long beans, gai lan, duck, spinach, etc.
It was time for this old dog to find a new treat. I visited three places, about which I had never written, recommended by multiple readers. I began my quest at China Garden, a place I depended upon for Vietnamese fixes but never Chinese. It was easily the nicest looking café I saw all week, with multiple fish tanks, good art, a full bar and comfortable furniture. With 120 seats, it was by far the largest. On one lunch hour visit, I was the only customer. Several others would stop in for carryout orders, though.
I appreciated its menu, which described every dish in detail. I quickly recalled why I prefer Vietnamese and Thai cafés to Chinese in Iowa. I like eggplant, garlic and ginger. In Thai places, they would all be included in some stir fries and curries that also gave one a choice of meats. Here, it was one thing or the other. Eggplant seemed to be included in only one vegetarian dish. Meat dishes included only vegetables that were ubiquitous all week (mostly carrots and onions). I tried a garlic eggplant dish with good rice, a tiny eggroll, a cup of gelatinous soup (it overlapped my spoon without falling off) in a sauce that was not too sweet. Ginger pork had similar plusses and minuses.
My next stop was Shang Yuen, a small self-service place that had been recommended by more readers than anywhere else. It also had the best bargain prices I found all week and was by far the busiest place I tried. It has fans who have visited regularly for years and know what they like — but that’s harder for novices to figure out. The menu had no description of anything. I tried an Empress chicken and a braised pork dish. When they were delivered, they looked identical. I thought I had one wrong order only to learn that in some places “braised” means breaded and deep fat fried. Vegetable choices were more limited here.
My third stop was my most fun. Both the front and back of the house at China Star were manned by one lady with an oversized personality. She was happy to tell a stranger about her nicest and rudest customers, in detail. She explained that the police told her to post a well-worn sign about not allowing firearms and credited it for preventing any such problems. Her menu was descriptive — no confusion about batter fried meats. Her “vegetable” dish with shrimp was my favorite single entrée all week. Rice was good, and an egg roll was the best of the week, too. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
7164 University Ave., Windsor Heights, 279-2456
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2020 Grand Ave., West Des Moines, 255-5115
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5717 Hickman Ave., 277-1000
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