Above: Heavenly Asian Cuisine and Lounge serves popular favorites as well as less familiar dishes, such as quail eggs and braised lamb.
Specializing in food from the Gansu and Sichuan provinces, Heavenly Asian Cuisine and Lounge opened this past weekend in Valley Junction. Shirley Burke, who owns the restaurant with her parents, says their goal is to offer authentic Chinese cuisine that’s “unlike anything we’re familiar with in the Midwest.”
Judging from a preview dinner last week, they’ve hit their mark. While the menu lists familiar items such as cashew chicken and Mongolian beef, the evening’s tasting buffet presented much less familiar fare. West Lake Beef Soup reminded me vaguely of hot-and-sour soup in its cornstarch-thickened glossiness, but the fresh ingredients—including peas, diced carrots and green onions—were startlingly bright in color and pleasingly delicate in flavor.
Silk Road Big Plate Chicken brought equally bright veggies, but much bolder flavors—including a windfall of those endorphin-releasing dried red peppers. The best part of the dish: hearty, thick, wide and chewy homemade noodles that were more akin to something my Iowa farm-wife grandmother would have made than something I’ve seen in a Chinese restaurant in these parts. They were wonderful—homey and foreign at the same time.
And I’ll probably never be able to pass up the Heavenly Grilled Fish With Spicy Sauce. The platter-sized, head-on barramundi arrived in a sizzling pan of spiced broth set over a hot plate. You and your dining companions serve yourselves fleshy chunks of fish off the bone; when it’s gone, you add various ingredients to the pan—such as sliced potato, fatty lamb, tofu and dried bean curd stick—allowing these to cook in the flavorful, bone-enriched broth.
Dish after dish followed suit, bringing wholly unexpected combinations, colors and flavors. Sure, some dishes confounded me a bit (e.g., a dessert of chewy, glutinous pastel-colored rice balls in a viscous, barely-sweet rice-wine liquid), but if you go here with a crowd of friends and order a table full of food, a few less-than-cherished oddities will be part of the fun.
Burke told me that part of her motivation in opening the spot was to offer a venue where locals could take visiting business execs and dignitaries from China. She lamented the dearth of such places while working in corporate America for many years. Hence, the elevated decor: Upscale without being stuffy, it’s pleasing, playful and modern, with joyful paintings evoking scenes of the Gansu province—the homeland of Burke and her family. The two chefs hail from China as well: one from Gansu and the other from Sichuan.
Heavenly Asian Cuisine and Lounge is at 225 Fifth St., West Des Moines; 515-274-9156. Facebook: Heavenly Asian Cuisine & Lounge.