Salween Thai is Something Special1/14/2015
The Salween is a legendary river that flows out of the Tibetan Himalayas through China, Burma and Thailand to the Andaman Sea. It is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world, though the Chinese have numerous plans to dam it to the horror of environmentalists. Several key parts of the river are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Most of the 7 million people who live near the river are isolated from the rest of the world, as there are no roads and the river is only navigable in small boats, and sometimes only during the rainy season.
Among the indigenous people of the Salween are the Karen, many of whom have escaped Burmese oppression to Thailand and then to the Midwest. One such family has operated Salween Thai restaurant in the Dundee area of central Omaha for several years. Omaha World Herald restaurant critic Sarah Baker Hansen has written that she thinks it’s the best Thai café in that town. She also named it one of Omaha’s ten best restaurants.
Now family members have opened a Des Moines version of the same restaurant, in the former African International Restaurant building. If you think all Thai restaurants in town are too similar, you should try this place. This is the first time I have seen samosas on a Thai menu, but I assume that’s a Burmese influence. Mine, called triangle puffs, were stuffed pastries filled with potatoes, beef and onion and deep fried. Delicious fish cakes were made with feather fish, a species from the Notopteridae clan with knife shaped bodies and light flakey flesh. These were mixed with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, battered and fried. Rice ball sausages were another new dish to my ken. Casings the shape of meatballs were stuffed with jasmine rice, ground pork and rice noodles, then fried and served with cabbage leaves, cucumber and sweet chili sauce. The idea is to eat them like a lettuce wrap.
Other appetizers were more familiar. Chicken satay, crab Rangoon (called fried won tons), chicken wings, spring rolls, egg rolls, fried tofu and meatballs all were served with sweet chili sauce. All items served looked like their photos on the menu, a really nice feature, especially for first- timers. Five curries also were typical of what one finds in other top local Thai cafés, in larger bowls than is standard, though. Spiciness is upscale from other places. I suggest you subtract at least one number from your usual preference. Chicken, beef, pork or shrimp are available but not tofu.
Three Thai soups featured chicken broth, with lemongrass, scallions, cilantro, galangal (ginger’s wild sister) and lime juice. One added coconut milk, another seafood. Two noodle soups were more like Thai soups than Vietnamese soups. A third, boat rice noodle, is more like pho. It includes a subtle spoonful of fresh pig’s blood (beef blood when available). Eight noodle dishes were evenly divided between pad Thai dishes (with rice vermicelli) and rad nat dishes (with wide egg noodles).
Fried dishes had classical Chinese influences. Egg salad and some stir fry dishes were made with preserved eggs, also known as hundred year eggs. Duck eggs are buried in ash, lime, salt, clay and rice husks for weeks or even months. The yolk turns dark green while the white becomes a translucent jelly. Other dishes included water spinach and gailan (Chinese broccoli). Green mango salad was available in three versions, including one with noodles that I loved. My favorite taste so far, though, is kana mu krob, described as “three layer pork with gailan and sauce.” The pork was skin-on pork belly, crisp outside, then fatty, then lean. Several other vegetables lent balance.
Bottom line: This unique café could become as legendary as its namesake.
3811 Douglas Ave., 255-4339
Daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
New Glen Oaks Country Club executive chef Monte Davis has been impressing members with his version of Parisienne gnocchi — made with light flakey pâte à choux.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.