Reader tips: Hong Kong, Sai Gon and Cheese Shop2/13/2013
Readers frequently ask questions that begin, “Who makes your favorite…?” Answers, being a matter of taste, can start arguments. That’s why I appreciate tips from folks who believe they’ve discovered a new favorite of anything. Recently I received a tout for Hong Kong’s Chinese buffet. Most Chinese buffets here seem to offer too much food and employ too many workers to make money. Yet they seem to grow bigger and endure. Hong Kong is a much smaller breed, a throwback to the mom-and-pop era of Chinese restaurants in Iowa. I tried it for the first time recently and discovered plenty of good food at bargain prices ($6 lunch, $7 dinners and $7 Sundays) plus a large a la carte menu. I spied star chef Dom Iannarelli (Splash, Jethro’s) ordering carryout there “after preparing 10,000 wings” for the Super Bowl. He called Hong Kong his “go-to place” for Chinese. That endorsement convinced me to check out more tips.
Two readers recommended Pho Sài Gòn, on Second Avenue (not to be confused with Saigon Café in Clive). New owners from Silicon Valley completely remodeled the old Lucky Dragon. Gone are the confounding steps that divided the room into sections. On both occasions I visited, a single dining room was inundated with music perfectly appropriate for 1980s high school proms: Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Beastie Boys, Ozzy, etc. Spring rolls contained more pork and less shrimp than at other local Vietnamese cafés. Pho (beef stock noodle soup) was served as others in town with sprouts, lime wedges, cilantro and chili on the side with a choice of beef cuts ranging from fatty brisket to tripe. Broth lacked the marrowy flavor of those at TNT and Rolling Wok, though. Pad see ew (flat noodle stir fry), served handsomely with orange slices on the rim of the plate, had a bland sauce that needed chili oil to spice up its chicken, broccoli and eggs. My favorite entrée was a sautéed lemongrass squid that produced tender cephalopods in complex sauce.
Looking for dishes unique in Des Moines, I tried lotus rootlet salad, an excellent spicy-sour dish with shrimp and pork adding dimensions of texture to adorable, little rootlets. “Broken rice” dishes were made with a shorter grain rice than others. Rice stick dishes (bun) were by the book except with quiche as an optional addition. I also found a “Taiwan-style pork banh mi” on the menu. Sandwiches by that name became popular in San Francisco and New York last year when Taiwanese basketball star Jeremy Lin was the rage. (Always item No. 17 on menus.) Those were banh mi baguettes filled with “Taiwanese three-cup chicken” and green sauce. Sài Gòn was sold out on my visits but explained their version was different — mini Chinese breakfast buns stuffed with duck.
Finally I followed multiple reader tips to Cheese Shop of Des Moines, which has added a new menu of hot dishes since I reviewed it a year ago. It also extended its superb line of cheese and charcuterie plates, adding several products from Smoking Goose, an Indiana company that has elevated sausage and salami much like Norwalk’s La Quercia has larder meats. I couldn’t resist a saucisson rouge salami (pork shoulder with red wine, liver and hearts) plate. That was off-mission though. I visited to try what readers were calling “the best toasted cheese sandwiches” in town. Mine were cooked with high fat butter on La Mie’s Italian sandwich bread with three perfectly blended Iowa cheeses — Milton Quark, Prairie Breeze and Frisian Farm Gouda. I can’t imagine a better toasted cheese sandwich, and I have paid three times the $5 price at other places.
Side Dishes The Fifty Best named La Quercia’s Green Label Organic Prosciutto the No. 2 charcuterie in the world, behind the legendary Joselito Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Gran Reserva. CV