Fong’s Pizza, Des Moines, Iowa
There’s a lot to be said for history in the restaurant business, but the reality is that it’s not always enough for a restaurant to survive. Des Moines found that out the hard way in 2008, when King Ying Low, the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city at 100 years in business, shut its doors at its location on Fourth Street in the center of the city. Although beloved institutions can close for a number of reasons, such as when Obrycki’s shut its main location because the owners had grown weary of harvesting crabs and wanted to spend more time with family, that didn’t appear to be the case with King Ying Low. A 2005 piece in the Des Moines Register gave King Ying Low a C, noting that the history scored it points, but better Asian food could be found elsewhere. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, and it’s particularly devastating toward the quality of the food. To steal a line from Brent Musburger, when the local press turns its guns on you, you’re finished.
However, although King Ying Low was indeed finished, that’s not the end of its story. Into the space on Fourth Street stepped a new restaurant and new owners in 2009, and this is where the story gets interesting. According to their website, the new owners, Dennis Epps and Gwen Page, initially came up with the concept of selling pizza at a tiki bar, complete with drinks. Upon looking at the space they had inherited and the Asian decorations left over from King Ying Low, though the new owners decided that they wanted to maintain the Asian theme that their predecessors had left behind and take it in their own direction. Fong’s Pizza had arrived in Des Moines.
Yes, that direction meant a fusion of Asian and Italian in Iowa, of all places. Granted, I’ve seen Chinese and Mexican work with fantastic results before, but that was in Arizona, which is well-known for Mexican food. Japanese and Mexican has also worked well, but that’s Louisville, which prides itself on being weird. Iowa, while known as a producer of great food, isn’t exactly well-known for its Italian food and isn’t known for bucking tradition in a good way, with Ames’ pizza scene being a notable exception.
Somehow, the combination worked to perfection. Actually, it worked so well that when Fong’s had to close for two months after its basement flooded, normally a death sentence for a young restaurant, it came back stronger than ever, spurred on by loyal fans who loved the unique concept. Most of that loyalty comes from the fact that Epps and Page did their homework once they had their plan figured out. One of the basic parts of California Pizza Kitchen’s business model is that if it sounds like it will taste good on a pizza, you have a 99% chance of being right, and Fong’s Pizza seems to have followed the same idea, searching out Asian restaurants before it opened to determine what dishes could translate well to the pizza pan.
The answer seems to be that if Fong’s can imagine it, it’s fair game, as the restaurant serves up 32 specialty pizzas, at least eight of which have Asian influences. Ever wanted to know what kung pao chicken would taste like with cheese and pizza dough? You can easily find out. Beef, broccoli and mushroom stir-fry? That’s on a pizza. Moo Shu pork with hoisin sauce? As simple as placing your order. It’s your favorite Chinese takeout place on a pie, with the proper sauces taking the place of the traditional tomato sauce. Pretty cool.
What about those who aren’t in the mood for Asian pizza? Fong’s has them covered too, and again, it’s not in the traditional sense. Once it had the Asian flavors mastered, Fong’s opted to turn other great dishes into pizzas. How about a baked potato pizza, topped with beef, bacon and cheese and served with sour cream? Or perhaps you’d prefer a bacon cheeseburger on a pizza? What about a vegetarian black bean taco? Or a Mediterranean pizza with chicken, spinach and feta? They’re all specialty pizzas on the menu. There’s even a honey and garlic pizza, which is a little strange, but probably works pretty well itself. All of them come on either thin crust or hand-tossed, and there’s a create-your-own menu that features some more familiar toppings if their creativity is a little too far for you. Basically, you’re only limited by their imagination, which stretches quite a ways.
The imagination even stretches to the appetizers, which take what you’d expect to find in a traditional pizza place and gives them some Asian flair. Pizza rolls, for example, are seemingly pretty straightforward. Fong’s, of course, tosses them in an egg roll wrapper to serve them. Mozzarella sticks, normally breaded and fried? Not here. The breading’s replaced by, you guessed it, an egg roll wrapper, before it fries. Chicken strips are also available, tossed in one of three Asian sauces. Clearly, Fong’s takes its homage to its Asian predecessor very seriously.
With that being the case, Amy decided to really test the Asian influences right off the bat here. She loves both egg rolls and crab rangoons, and egg rolls with sweet chili sauce were perfect in her eyes. They were every bit as good as advertised, with the pork and chicken working beautifully with the sweet chili sauce and the vegetables add great texture. These egg rolls are good enough that you’d expect to find them in a traditional Chinese restaurant, and to find them in a fusion restaurant speaks to just how much Fong’s cares about honoring the Asian roots of its location.
With Fong’s having passed the Asian test, it was time to see just how good the fusion part of it was, and Amy knew exactly what she wanted to experience. Remember how I said she loves egg rolls and crab rangoons? Well, the reason she didn’t order the rangoons was because Fong’s specialty pizza is the Crab Rangoon pizza, which they initially weren’t even going to add to their menu because even Epps and Page thought it was too much of a stretch to sell. But like everything else in this crazy story, things went the exact opposite of what might be expected, and the Crab Rangoon pizza is not only their top-selling pizza, but it was also named Iowa’s best pizza by Food Network Magazine (as opposed to Zagat). That’s a pretty strong endorsement, and that meant we absolutely had to give this combination a try.
It certainly lives up to the hype. The crab rangoon seasoning is spot-on, and the surimi (imitation crab) meshes perfectly with the seasoning to re-create the taste. Fong’s adds on egg roll strips to stand in for the fried wonton wrapper, and the sweet chili sauce provides the flavor of dipping sauce that Amy loves so much. Throw in two cheeses to remind you that yes, this is still a pizza, and you have an excellent taste that’s well worthy of recognition.
Of course, we couldn’t make a trip to a place like this and make this the only pizza that we sampled. No. 2 was one of my choices, and I decided that I couldn’t come to a pizza place, even one as creative as this, and not get something with mushrooms. After all, mushrooms are often used in American Chinese cooking, so it’s not like they’d be out of place here on a specialty pizza. What caught my eye was the Happy Family, featuring two kinds of chicken, surimi and shrimp, along with mushrooms and green pepper. Really, there’s no part of that sentence that I didn’t like.
There’s a good reason for it. This is a great marriage of meat, flavor and texture, as the shrimp is really the star of this pizza. Fong’s covers this pizza in the delectable sea creatures, then adds a crunch from the green peppers and balances the taste with the mushrooms and chicken. Seafood on a pizza isn’t something that you find very often, but when it’s done right, it makes you wonder why it’s not done more often. There are probably a few too many peppers, which can make eating this pizza a bit unwieldy without a fork, but when that’s the worst thing about a dish, that’s a good thing.
Fong’s also has another nice feature for those who are inclined to partake in alcohol: the tiki bar concept from the beginning became one of Fong’s signatures, with 16 different mixed drinks available, most of which are served in signature mugs. There isn’t a lot of space available as a result, but that’s an acceptable sacrifice when that kind of feature exists.
That’s really a perfect example of what has made Fong’s what it is: something that started with a certain vision and adapted it as necessary to fit its surroundings. Des Moines might have lost its oldest Chinese restaurant, but in its place, Fong’s has more than made up for King Ying Low’s absence and become something truly unique. Asian on a pizza isn’t anyone’s first thought, but against all odds, it certainly works. I wish Davenport could figure out pizza like this.
Time to go: Lunch, dinner or late night. Fong’s opens at 11 a.m. and takes orders until midnight. If you’re hungry afterward, Fong’s will still sell some pizzas by the slice until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. One thing to note: Fong’s does not take call-in orders, so don’t bother.
Wait during my visit: Extensive. Fong’s is not very big, and it’s very popular, which means waits can get incredibly long. We were waiting about 45 minutes for a table on our visit. One nice thing that Fong’s does is if you do have to wait, they’ll give you a card to get a discounted drink or a free soda at one of the bars in downtown Des Moines. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can use this card at Fong’s. It’s a discount for other businesses only, not their own. Weird, but oh well.
Location: Fong’s is at 223 Fourth Street in Des Moines, Iowa.
Cost: Not too bad, as most pizzas will cost about $11 for a 10-inch pie and $18 for a 16-inch. Either get two 10’s or a 16, and you’ll easily come in under $30, unless you want to add an appetizer or tiki beverage.
Parking: That won’t be easy, as Des Moines has a lot of restaurants and bars in this area and not a lot of spaces nearby. You’re likely going to have to go to a garage that’s a five to 10-minute walk and pay a couple dollars.
Seating arrangement: Booths, tables and chairs. One thing to note: the restroom is VERY small. I’m average build, and it felt like a sardine can for me. Be careful.
Website: Fong’s Pizza
Specialty items: Asian pizzas