Forbidden fruits no more7/22/2015
Most Iowans eagerly anticipate this time of year because it’s the season for fresh sweet corn and tomatoes. Thanks to recent developments in local supermarkets and a United States Department of Agriculture decision in 2007, it’s also the peak of tropical fruit season. Last week at C Fresh, I found dragon fruit, jackfruit, persimmons, mangoes, lychees and mangosteens. The latter fruit is part of world food lore. I know chefs who paid as much as $100 a pound for them before the U.S. government lifted a long ban, which made them a black market fruit usually from behind the counter in Chinatowns of New York, San Francisco and Toronto. They were also a driving force behind the underground restaurant movement of the 1990s, when underground was code for “contraband.”
R.W. “Johnny” Apple, the legendary New York Times journalist, helped build their reputation by writing “No other fruit, for me, is so thrillingly, intoxicatingly luscious.” They were falsely believed to harbor an Asian fruit pest before 2007. That same year, Hawaii began marketing the first American-grown mangosteens. Eight years later, they are sold in one-pound bags at C Fresh. They are not stocked on shelves of the fruit section, however. They are kept behind the cashier aisles, like in the old days in Chinatowns.
There are many other reasons to visit C Fresh. They stock fish like white bass, blue runners, featherfish and Norwegian mackerel at bargain prices. They also have rarely seen body parts like pig uteri and four kinds of both feet and tripe. Need some extra virgin coconut oil, pork loaf wrapped in banana leaves or tofu with caramel pudding? This is the place.
Even for non shoppers, C Fresh has a special lure. It has developed one of the city’s best Southeast Asian cafés — Pho 515 — adjacent to its deli and bakery. Some of the city’s top chefs — Jay Wang (Wasabi Chi) and Joe Tripp (Alba) — told me it’s their favorite southeast Asian café. I’ve seen George Formaro (Centro) and Sean Wilson (Proof) dining there, too. Pho (beef stock with rice noodles, fresh vegetables and a choice of many meats) and bun (noodles with shredded lettuce, carrots, chilies, peanuts, pickled vegetables, cucumbers, lemon sauce and meats) are the go-to dishes here. On my visits, it has looked like half of all orders have been phos and half of the rest were buns. Pork and duck were rotisserie-roasted here and featured in many dishes.
Other plates were less familiar. A Vietnamese beef stew was served with shanks, tendons and flanks after being cooked down in beef broth. Duck soup was made with roasted and braised duck, mushrooms, herbs, spices, vegetables and thick egg noodles. Vietnamese-style pad Thai was less spicy than many Thai versions. Several rice dishes are served with myriad types of pork (chops, shredded, roasted, etc.) and two styles of egg (fried or braised).
Pho 515 offers an entire page of exotic dessert and drink options — some served beach-style in green coconuts with their tops chopped off. Bubble teas were made with fresh fruit. Coconut milk included fresh coconut meat. Egg nog was homemade. Custards rivaled the better Mexican flans. Lime and orange juices were made with freshly squeezed fruits.
Bottom line — Like C Fresh market, Pho 888 offers exotic flavors and fresh foods one does not find elsewhere around town.
Side dishes: After 20 years of operating a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, Nishapat Meesangkaew and family have taken over the former King & I in West Des Moines. That long-running café was owned by Mao Heinemann, who moved to central Iowa after many years running Thai restaurants in Seattle. The new business is called Eat Thai, Thai Eatery. CV
801 University Ave., 243-2434
Mon. – Sat. 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.,
Sun. 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.