Feb 12, 2021 - News

Why Des Moines' pho scene is so big

Illustration of pho

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.


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