World shrinking at Rolling Wok11/12/2014
Years before Prasong “Pak” Nurack would open Des Moines’ original Thai restaurant, and decades before he would become a Thai national senator, he ran a diner on Court Avenue called Little Joe’s. That place served lunch cafeteria-style, and one day’s advertised special, veal parmigiano, seemed to be exhausted.
“No more veal parmigiano?” I asked. “No, try lasagna, same thing,” Pak replied.
If all Italian American food seemed somewhat indistinguishable to Asians in Des Moines 30 years ago, then pan Asian cuisines are crossing mental borders in the minds of European Iowans today. A Chinese buffet in a Hy-Vee might have more than a dozen different hot dishes, yet they all taste like they are made with the same base sauce. Large Chinese buffets in town now offer everything from pizza and tacos to sushi and Mongolian grills. While east Asian restaurants here used to specialize in single native cuisines, nowadays, most newer places offer multiple menus including Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian. Older places are adding new cuisines, too. This is a very hard act to perfect. Usually, the more things a restaurant has on its menu, the fewer things it does superbly.
The best of this new breed might well be Rolling Wok. This two-room café is in La Plaza, a rather new development east of the state capitol that also is home to Patton’s and Los Laureles, arguably the town’s best soul food and Mexican restaurants. There are also ethnic grocery and ice cream stores, plus a bakery. Since opening seven years ago, Rolling Wok has expanded the scope of its menu and its brand, opening a satellite store on the skywalk briefly.
Its strength is its Laotian menu, which is the best in town. Laaps of chicken, beef, shrimp or fish are generous. Rolling Wok’s homemade sesame beef jerky is famous and not as chewy as American styles. Their green papaya salad with sticky rice (in a cute little bamboo basket) rates a medium on the sour scale. Homemade Lao sausage is above-average in spiciness. Soups steal the show, though. Rolling Wok makes scratch stocks of beef, pork and chicken bones, plus bamboo and vegetables. They also make scratch noodles for their specialty “kow piak sen,” a chicken soup with wide rice noodles, scallions, cilantro and chilies. A “millionaire” version (actually $8) adds a meatball, shrimp, squid and roast pork. Spicy chicken and spicy fish stews are similarly-flavored, with tilapia serving as the fish of choice. Patongko (fried, sweetened bread sticks) can be added to any soup for a slight charge.
The beef stocks are reserved for the Pho menu ($4 – $8.50). These rice noodle soups are offered with meatballs, brisket, eye of round, tripe and tendon. Seafoods, pork and duck can also be added. The usual vegetables, herbs and condiments are offered. All phos are reduced $1 on Mondays.
One needs look to the Chinese and Thai menus to find other dishes familiar in Vietnamese cafés — vermicelli noodle dishes, rice plates, etc. Chicken stocks star in Thai soups, both tom yums and tom khas, which differ in the addition of coconut milk to the latter. The appetizer menu offers a “shrimp in basket” take on crab Rangoon, plus good dumplings and satay.
Most daily specials on the menu are familiar Chinese dishes like Hunan beef, pepper steak and empress chicken. A sign behind the bar alerts diners to more exotic specials like sizzling gizzards. Bubble tea offerings extend beyond fruits to things like taro root and mocha. Loud commercial TV sometimes plays annoyingly.
Side Dishes: Trying to improve the art of conversation, Sioux City’s Sneaky’s restaurant promised a 10 percent discount to customers who give up their cell phones while dining on Wednesdays… Peace Tree’s Blonde Fatale won the gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup Awards in the Belgian blonde or pale ale category. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.Rolling Wok 1534 E. Grand Ave., 266-3787 Mon. – Fri. 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. – 9 p.m., Sat 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.