However, the highlight of the side trip was clearly Iowa City. Many of my Chinese dining articles have made reference to the proliferation of authentic Chinese restaurants in college towns across the country, which have arisen to meet the demands of the hundreds of thousands of Mainland Chinese college students now in the country. While I have observed exemplars of campus adjacent Chinese dining in the past, I had not visited a true college town affected by the surge of Mainland Chinese students in the past decade. I was especially intrigued by a lengthy CNN article that focused on the University of Iowa in Iowa City with its student body of thousands of Chinese students. So seeing Iowa City was on the way to Des Moines and Omaha was a bonus that overshadowed the original purpose of the trip.
I had done my homework and determined that the best Chinese food in Iowa City was at a restaurant called Food Republic, so I made a bee line there. Unfortunately as I drove by, I saw the windows papered over with a “temporarily closed” sign. Fortunately I remember passing a restaurant on the same street with a “Hotpot” sign, so I turned around and went to Uncle Sun instead. I was surprised when I saw Uncle Sun’s menu because I had assumed they would have an Americanized section for the locals and non-Chinese, and a Sichuan section for the Mainland Chinese students who are largely from that area. While there was a separate Sichuan section in back, labeled ‘Hometown Dishes”, the front part of the menu was also quite authentic, too. At first we ordered the chicken dumplings, the fish with preserved cabbage, and the Chinese broccoli. But when we ordered the broccoli, the waitress warned us that this was a white vegetable, which made no sense to us. We told her we wanted the green broccoli, and she said OK. However, when the dish came out, it was American broccoli. Starving for vegetables, we kept the dish and it turned out to be quite good, along with the other stuff. Still puzzled by the Chinese broccoli, I pulled up a picture of it on my Blackberry and showed it to them. They said they didn’t have that dish. So what was their “Chinese broccoli”? Napa? The fish dish turned out to be a soup dish, which I had a few times in California, and was so good that I threw rice into the leftover broth to use it up. Anyway, we were so impressed we ordered more American broccoli to take for dinner plus fish with wood ear fungus, as this seemed to be a safer bet than looking for food when we arrived at the day's final destination of Des Moines.
We then crossed over from downtown Iowa City across Clinton St. to the University of Iowa campus, which for some reason seemed reminiscent of Cal Berkeley. The campus was huge and we only saw a small part of it. But I was very happy to visit the campus since I had been to all of the other original Big 10 campuses. (Note that there's a curve ball to the statement. I have never been to Michigan State--but that school was added to the Big 10 only after the University of Chicago dropped out, and is not one of the original Big 10. I have been to the Chicago campus.) Crossing back later into downtown, we passed another restaurant called Dumpling Darling, which I had assumed to be a typical Chinese dumpling restaurant. However while there was a mix of Chinese and white customers, and served Pan-Asian dumplings, it was manned by a couple of white guys. I decided to add to my dinner cache with an order of bison momo and steamed chicken artichoke bao. We then stopped by Encore Life, a Chinese boba shop, for a mixed fruit drink.
Downtown Iowa City was very illuminating for me, having written about campus town Chinese food, to see how it manifests itself today, but seeing the Mainland China version for the first time. As one of the workers at Uncle Sun, a theater arts major from Yunnan put it, there’s no “Chinatown” there, but rather the Chinese businesses were spread throughout downtown. I guess I had expected a greater physical concentration of Chinese eating and drinking places based on the CNN story which talked about Iowa City having three times as many boba shops as Starbucks. While a true statement, that was slightly misleading because there were 3 boba shops and 1 Starbucks in Iowa City when that was written, now 4 boba shops and 2 Starbucks, so it’s not like there’s boba on every corner. And I suspect this is what the Mainland Chinese student presence is like in other college towns--subtle, but also unmistakable.