Des Moines is blessed with lots of outstanding Vietnamese restaurants. Thank you, Gov. Ray. One of them is raising the bar. Pho 515 is about 90% of the way done with a major remodeling. It is enclosed now with lovely new furniture. All that is left is the installing of a full bar which will be done by next year.
So now the café in the C Fresh supermarket provides a venue worthy of their fabulous food. For this year’s Super Bowl, I got myself a roasted duck and a big piece of roast pig and made tacos and lettuce wraps out of them with lemon sauce and hot chili oil. They were so good that I determined to work my way through the entire section of the menu called “house specialties.”
The menu covers everything you expect in a Vietnamese café here. The pho is top notch. In fact, it won the first two Pho King competitions, and it won unanimously on all judges ballots the first time. It’s made with bone broth from the shanks of cows. One can order it however one likes — adding brisket, tendon, flank steak, meatballs, pig’s blood, tripe or eye of roast round. Tofu and chicken are also on hand with the usual accompanying vegetables — daikon, bean sprouts, flowering coriander (cilantro), mint and fish sauce. The house makes its own Da Bomb sauce, and it’s worth requesting. Other soups include seafood phos, chicken sizzling rice, won ton and a great snow crab soup with asparagus tips. Tempura fried tofu is a dish for people who don’t normally like tofu.
The bun menu (rice vermicelli served cold) includes more pork options — grill pork, roast pork, pig’s blood tofu, pork chops, plus grilled shrimp, beef brisket, round or tendon. All include chopped lettuce, daikon, carrots, coriander, cucumbers and peanuts. Fried rice and other rice dishes are served with house pickled vegetables.
The house specialties are what raises 515 to the top of the mountain. Braised duck soup is made with egg noodles, pickled green papaya, daikon, and ginger dipping sauce. Phnom Penh soup is made in bone broth with pig’s heart, roast pork, quail eggs, large shrimp, garlic, shallots, onions and fried Napa cabbage. Crab cake soup includes, pig’s blood tofu, crab meat, pork loaf, ground pork, sliced tomato, banana flowers, multiple mints, and bean sprouts. The soup’s stock is made of crab, tamarind and tomato.
Shaken beef steak presents a marinated filet mignon wok seared with onions, sweet peppers and rice. It will spoil carne asada for you. Quang Nam noodles are made with turmeric powder and served with quail egg, pork ribs, shrimp, pork belly and crispy rice crackers. Beef stew is made with flank and shank, plus carrots. It can be ordered with any kind of noodles or as a sandwich. 515 bakes banh mis bread for all the Vietnamese cafés in town. Won tons are stuffed with shrimp and pork and served with more shrimp and pork, plus baby bok choy. Gumbo is made with four kinds of seafood and two kinds of pork, plus fried fish and rice noodles.
Crab soup is made with tapioca noodles, crab cakes, shrimp, pig’s blood tofu, pork, and fish cakes. It is made in a broth made with shrimp and crabs. Duck salad is cooked in duck stock and served with bean noodles, bamboo shoots, coriander and lettuce. It is dressed with a vinaigrette. Korean beef kalbi is a short rib dish marinated in a tangy soy and sesame sauce and served with bok choy, kim chi, cucumbers and tomatoes.
The superstar here is the sizzling rice crepes. These are rice flour pancakes stuffed with pork belly and shrimp and served with a large plate of lettuces and mint to wrap pieces of pancake in. Lemon sauce, chili oil and several fish sauces are provided to flavor these gems.
There is a seven-item vegan menu, specialty drinks, including fresh squeezed limeade, and bubble teas. ♦
Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.