Crumbs litter empty black tables, green vinyl seats and worn-down red carpet. Napkins lay crumpled next to sticky smears of honey and hot chili sauce. A single server hands a receipt to the lone customer. She brushes sweat from her damp brow. The air is humid; a white ceiling fan can’t cool the entire place.
Like the fan, co-owner Gwen Page struggles to adjust to Fong’s Pizza’s increasing popularity. This quirky restaurant has made a name for itself among locals.
An Asian-inspired pizzeria located on Fourth Street in downtown Des Moines, Fong’s has been serving up slices since 2009.
Taking over Des Moines’ oldest Chinese restaurant, King Ying Low, Fong’s had multiple customers come in throughout the first year not knowing the venue had changed. This is because the pizzeria kept most of the Asian elements from the previous restaurant. Page said Fong’s decided to incorporate Chinese flair to pay tribute to the restaurant’s history.
Page had to tear up five layers of wallpaper to paint the walls a mixture of warm reds, greens and yellows. Occupied since the early 1940s, she said she put a lot of elbow grease into sprucing up the space Low’s left behind.
With all of the renovations, it still hasn’t changed much. When a customer walks in the heavy glass doors, they see the large mural of cranes that Low’s had. The red lattice décor that once graced the walls now act as dividers between booths. Small oriental knickknacks, including cat figurines waving their paws as signs of good fortune, line shelves above the tiki bar.
Along with the Asian theme, Fong’s incorporates a bar and traditional Italian pizzeria into its design. Posters above the booths trade between rich Italian paintings and more neutral Asian ones depicting pale-faced women with black hair. Rows of colorful bumper stickers grace the shelves above the bar. A sign on the wall says, “Hippies Use Backdoor.”
“We wanted a vintage feel; fun and casual,” Page said.
Rick Web, a first-time customer, agrees with Page about the laidback environment. He said the restaurant is like nowhere he had been to before.
Like its unique atmosphere, Fong’s offers a wide variety of pizza with an Asian twist. Customers can munch on hand-made appetizers, such as egg rolls or Chinese ribs, while browsing three large pages of pizza combinations in the menu.
The most popular pie is the crab Rangoon pizza.
“We sell six times more of it than our other popular pizzas,” Page said.
Page came up with the idea with her business partner, adapting the recipe from the traditional Asian appetizer. Fong’s creates the pie by spreading cream cheese on a fresh pizza crust. Next comes a mixture of crabmeat and green onions. It’s topped with cheese, crunchy egg-roll strips and sweet chili sauce.
As word spreads about Fong’s unique take on pizza, Page received an email from editors at the Food Network Magazine. The restaurant was featured in the magazine’s September 2011 issue and on the Cooking Channel’s segment “Pizza Outside the Box.”
Since then, the crowd at Fong’s has only grown.
“We sold 7,500 slices last month,” Page said.
People now come from hours away to taste the intriguing food they’ve heard about. The staff is working harder than ever to serve from the restaurant’s small venue. The staff takes it a day at a time. As one rush dies down, another is about to begin.