CEDAR RAPIDS — The most popular menu item at Fong’s Pizza, the Des Moines-based restaurant that is the newest addition to NewBo’s food scene, is the Crab Rangoon Pizza. But it almost didn’t make it on the menu.
“When we presented it to the partners in the first menu tasting, they said, ‘No, that’s crazy,’” co-owner Gwen Page said.
Yet, crab rangoon advocates won out, and the pizza, topped with surimi, green onion, cheese, crispy wontons and sweet chili sauce, became something of an Iowa food legend.
“I look at a pizza crust as a blank canvas. That’s what makes it fun, that’s what starts people talking,” Page said.
For Fong’s partners, the blank canvas of a pizza crust was a way to tell a story, beginning when they opened their original location in downtown Des Moines in January 2009. They opened in the previous location of King-Ying-Low, a Chinese restaurant that first opened in 1908 and had been in that location since around 1941. The space inspired Fong’s Chinese-themed menu and decor.
“You could just feel the energy in the room there. We wanted to honor that story and carry it forward,” Page said. “And these (pizza and Chinese food) are two very craveable food groups.”
They visited local Chinese restaurants to try food and spoke with a few of the chefs to gather hints. They ended up with pizzas like General Tso’s chicken, with breaded chicken, water chestnuts, baby corn, roasted red pepper, green onions and cheese, and Egg Roll, topped with sweet-and-sour sauce, sausage, chicken, mirepoix, cabbage, mozzarella, wontons and sweet chili sauce. Most of the pizzas can be made gluten free or vegetarian on request. The menu also includes appetizers, salads, sandwiches and desserts.
Along with the food, Fong’s features tiki drinks, served in unique mugs.
“What makes Fong’s so successful is that odd mishmash of flavors,” Page said.
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Other partners include Andy and Dan Massoth and Jeff Bruning. Managers Matt Schulz and Stephen Paglow moved to Cedar Rapids to open the restaurant. Kitchen manager Blaine Gibson rounds out the team.
The Fong’s brand expanded in 2015 with an Ankeny location. Page said the partners decided to expand into Cedar Rapids rather than opening more Des Moines-area locations in part to keep the novelty of the restaurant intact.
“I really feel this concept is somewhat of a destination, and it takes away some of the charm to have it in close proximity,” she said. “Ankeny represented a different business model — we have late night (downtown Des Moines) and then family-friendly. It was time to branch out.”
The Cedar Rapids location, in the former Beta’s space in NewBo, fit with their goal of a destination dining experience, she said.
“This area, with it’s creativity, locally-owned shops, and the programming NewBo City Market does, is perfect for us,” Page said.
The decor features Cedar Rapids connections. Retro prints of Chinese advertisements line the walls, copies made from David and Lijun Chadima’s personal collection. The Chadimas, who previously lived in China own the building as well as the nearby Cherry Building. Along the entry way and hostess desk are dragon-patterned panels from NewBo’s midcentury furniture and decor shop Mad Modern.
They transformed the former Beta’s restaurant with a bigger kitchen and an additional prep area in the basement. Still, with the ability to cook 12 pizzas at a time, their kitchen has been at capacity since they opened May 7. Between a consistently packed dining room with seating for around 80 people, plus carryout orders, some customers have had long waits for tables and food. Page said they have been working out the kinks of workflow and production load and temporarily suspended carryout service during peak hours to try to cut down on wait times for in-house diners. Yet she said she’s been happy with how people have responded to the restaurant.
“We couldn’t be happier with the response we’ve received from the community. All the local business owners made a point to come over to introduce themselves. People have been very understanding and patient with our growing process.”
l Comments: (319) 398-8339; email@example.com
If you go
l What: Fong’s Pizza
l Where: 1006 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
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l When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Full menu available 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; late night slices available until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Happy hour featuring free slice with drink order 3 to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.
l Details: (319) 320-9992, Fongspizza.com