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Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Pho is about as classic as a pork tenderloin sandwich in Des Moines' culinary scene.

Why it matters: The Lunar New Year starts today, so it felt like a great time to explore the history of our Vietnamese restaurants.

How it started: Between 1975 and 1979, former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray started a program to resettle Southeast Asian refugees following the Vietnam War, per Iowa PBS.

  • Iowa had one of the largest settlement populations at that time after thousands of refugees moved here, according to the AP.

Why it mattered: Opening a restaurant was a means for survival, especially for families who knew little to no English, according to Nu Huynh, executive director of the Iowa Asian Alliance.

  • "It was a, 'Hey, we need income, we need something stable, and what are we good at? What can we do? We're good at cooking food,'" Huynh explained.

Since then, local favorites like Pho All Seasons, Pho 888 and A Dong have shined.

  • Simultaneously, DSM's Southeast Asian population has grown. In 2018, 87,708 Iowans identified as Asian. 15% were Vietnamese, and the majority lived in Polk County, according to the Iowa Data Center.

The state of play: Second and third generations are continuing to open new restaurants and put their own trendy spin on food, Huynh said.

  • At least 14 Vietnamese restaurants cook up food in Des Moines, with new places like Pho Real offering late-night eats and a bubble tea bar.

This story first appeared in the Axios Des Moines newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.

Go deeper

Updated Feb 18, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on post-election recovery in Des Moines

On Thursday, Feb. 18, Axios hosted a conversation on the impact of local stimulus in Des Moines and the fallout of the 2020 Iowa caucuses, featuring Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Iowa Democratic Party chair and state Rep. Ross Wilburn.

Sen. Chuck Grassley discussed the Iowa caucuses in advance of the 2024 election, as well as the economic stimulus following the pandemic.

  • His response to some House members' calls to have a more diverse state caucus come first in the 2024 election: "Iowa will be first in the nation with the caucus, and I assure you that that's going to be the case because both the Democratic Party of Iowa and the Republican Party of Iowa want it there."
  • On wanting a more focused COVID-19 stimulus package: "We should target any checks that go out from the federal government to people like we have done twice already... that really have need."

Rep. Ross Wilburn similarly discussed Iowa's place in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, as well decisions in the Iowa state legislature around the allocation of economic recovery funds.

  • On his view of why it's important for Iowa to be the first state to caucus: "Iowa plays a critical piece in terms of preparing our Democratic candidates for the national stage."
  • On focusing on small businesses in economic recovery: One of the things that we're trying to do in the House is to get access to a business recovery grant program that we're going to invest funds into, I believe, 5,000 small businesses."

Axios Vice President Mia Vallo hosted a View from the Top segment with East Village Spa owner Cassie Sampson and discussed how the small business community in Des Moines has come together in a period of crisis.

  • "I think the most important thing for me with the small business community here is to stay in touch with each other...So really reach out, lift each other up. We need each other and share ideas."

Thank you Facebook for sponsoring this event.

Where Iowa stands on women's representation in politics

Data: Axios Research; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Four women now represent Iowa in Congress, a record for the state.

  • But the count slipped in the Iowa Legislature, where there are 43 women, two fewer than the record set in 2019.
Linh Ta, author of Des Moines
Feb 11, 2021 - Axios Des Moines

COVID relief eases Des Moines Public School's budget pains

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Des Moines schools received a whopping $41 million in the latest round of CARES Act funding — more than any other Iowa school district.

Why it matters: The money comes as budget cuts loom, and are expected to be steeper due to the impact of COVID-19, Shashank Aurora, the district's chief financial officer, told Axios in an interview.