Recently, my good friend suggested we venture away from downtown to find some good Vietnamese fare. Always the connoisseur of all cuisine, I trusted him. Sun Café (1681 S 1st Ave., Iowa City) didn’t disappoint.
The first thing I noticed was the display of perfectly roasted hanging ducks in the rotisserie case. Recently, there has been an explosion of good Pho in Iowa City and Coralville, but Sun Café is a cut above the rest.
Pho is truly soup for the soul. When done right, the stock should be simmered for hours or up to a day with any combination of beef cuts rich in connective tissue, marrow and tendon, and charred onion cooked down into a robust broth. While the soft rice noodle is a great stomach filler, the true magnificence of Pho is found in the spice combination that accompanies the stock: star anise, cinnamon, fennel and occasionally green cardamom, coriander and palm sugar (for those with a sweet tooth).
Being a chef in downtown Iowa City, and an avid soup lover, it is easy for me to spot when a restaurant covers up a weak stock with sugar and salt. Sun Café has no such issues. When the steaming bowls arrived, my friend couldn’t help but highfive me because of the rich medley of green onion, bean sprouts and cilantro that accompanied the dish, not to mention the clear, but deeply caramel-colored broth that signifies a well simmered stock. We were also treated to shrimp spring rolls wrapped in tender rice paper that had none of the accompanying chewiness that one often finds in premade rolls.
However, what truly sets this restaurant apart from other Pho options in Iowa City is its menu—yes, I’ve been back several times to explore it. Sun Café’s Mì Vịt Tiềm is unrivaled anywhere in the city (it’s not even attempted): a complex combination of shitake mushrooms, roast duck, bok choy and egg noodle served with a whole duck thigh. They also offer whole hog and duck options, not to mention pork, rice and vegetable dishes for the less soup oriented. And though I haven’t gotten around to the entire menu, I intend to.
Sun Café is a half sit-down, half café-style restaurant with no frills, so don’t expect them. But if you like food for its flavor and not its appearance, then in the words of Terrance Hayes, “Never mistake what it is for what it looks like.”
Note: This article has been updated to include the street address for Sun Café.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 201.