Suburban strip malls are far less predictable than they used to be. One of the greatest restaurant cities on Earth is Monterrey Park, California, where almost all its many great restaurants are in strip malls. Across America, restaurateurs are taking chances locating in aging strip malls with lots of parking. People are willing to drive long distances for a good meal but aren’t as willing to walk too far in bad weather. (My dream is to see good restaurants invade charming Sherwood Forest.)
Greater Des Moines is catching up with this trend. Some of the area’s best restaurant kitchens — Eat Thai, Taj Mahal, Mi Patria, Namaste, Taste of New York, Mazatlan, Waterfront, Sakura, H’s Pho, Kue’d, Table 128, Dish, Red Rossa, Gusto, Side Car, etc. — are located in suburban strip malls. Wong’s Chopsticks is a strip mall gem. With the New Year’s Eve closings of Kwong Tung and Great China, it is the area’s top example of old fashioned Cantonese genius.
This is not fine dining. It is a family restaurant in all senses. Children might play in the dining room while others do homework or watch TV. There are no tablecloths, nor linen napkins. Because staff is family, and everything is made from scratch, there can be long waits between ordering and delivery, especially during busy weekend dim sum services. Savvy customers often prefer to order online or by phone and pick up orders to go. I have seen takeout orders exponentially outnumber dine-in orders at dinner time.
In a way, Chopsticks is three restaurants in one. Lunch offers by far the fastest service and sensational bargains. Lunch specials, most $5, included a choice of several entrees, steamed or fried rice, egg roll or crab Rangoon, and egg drop or hot and sour soup. Dim sum has its own menu and also provides supreme bargains. Dinner seems to be heavily carryout.
The popularity of the restaurant comes from the kitchen of Ling Wong and her daughter. The menu has accommodated the taste of suburban Des Moines diners during the last 10 years. When Chopsticks first opened, it included Chinese dishes that Iowans had never heard of. Those are all still available by advance ordering, but almost nothing on today’s menu sounds unfamiliar to local folks. Some ethnic dishes appear as specials, too. Last week, a pork belly that took two days to prepare was featured.
Slow, deliberate cooking separates Chopsticks from others. Dumplings and pot stickers are obviously scratch-made with fresh-tasting wrappers thicker than industrial ones. Colossal breaded chicken wings, fantail shrimp, beef satay, spare ribs, egg rolls, crab rangoon and fried won tons are all served on a $13 appetizer sampler. Chicken feet (dim sum) taste nothing like those at Kwong Tung.
The house specialty — and the most expensive entrée at $12.50 — is walnut shrimp, a variation of Hong Kong’s famous honey walnut prawns. Wong’s version does not include mayonnaise and features jumbo fried shrimp in a sweet sauce. My favorite Chinese dish in town is his twice-cooked pork ($8), a dish I rarely order elsewhere. Utterly tender pork is cooked with Asian cabbage in Wong’s special fermented black bean sauce. Salt and pepper shrimp and squid were perfectly executed in the shell. Mushroom dishes employed tasty black mushrooms rather than shiitakes or dreaded buttons. Sesame dishes were deeply flavored. Both pork and beef dishes featured unusually tender meats.
Bottom line – Chopsticks is a strip mall treasure.
Side Dishes: Table 128’s June 15 whisk(e)y dinner ($58) will include a George Dickle, two Johnny Walkers including blue, two Crown Royals including “whisky of the year” Rye Harvest, two Bullets, duck breast, three cheeses, foie gras and ice cream… TV chef Chef Sara Moulton will teach two classes ($60) at the Culinary Loft on June 22. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
5500 Merle Hay Road., Johnston
Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Dim sum Saturday – Sunday until 2 p.m.