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One Kitchen, Three Cuisines

Mekong Cafe sets new standards

May. 28, 2008
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TheMekong is one of the great rivers of Asia, originating in China and flowing through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before finally reaching the sea. Bahn Phongsavat and her daughter Sichanh recently opened a cafe of the same name, with a menu that features the cuisines of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Mekong Cafe occupies a space that once housed the Spice Island restaurant, but the interior has been completely renovated. The place now has large windows, a smaller bar and new carpeting. The simple decor features a few scenic paintings of Southeast Asia, sequined embroideries and a carved wooden screen at the entrance, creating a relaxing setting for a delightful meal.

One recent customer asked his dining companion, “What’s good here?” The reply: “Everything.” After making several visits, I would have to agree. Though Phongsavat is a native of Laos, the dishes from Thailand and Vietnam are prepared with equal care. One appetizer that is simply a must is banh xeo ($6.95), Vietnamese crepes of rice flour blended with coconut milk and turmeric (one of the spices that makes Vietnamese food so different from Thai and Chinese). The turmeric contributes a golden hue, the coconut milk a bit of sweetness. The crepes are filled with minced pork and shrimp and then topped with bean sprouts and crushed peanuts. The plate comes with a side of nuoc cham, a sweet dipping sauce with flakes of red pepper that are mostly for show. This sets a high bar for the remainder of the meal.

When dining with a group, consider the sample platter ($10.95), which includes five of the appetizers. There are some fine chicken satay, fresh spring rolls and even triangles of fried tofu for the vegetarians. The crab Rangoon even has noticeable bits of crabmeat. The dipping sauces truly stand out. Nuoc cham makes another appearance, along with a distinctive sweet-andsour sauce and the best Thai peanut sauce I have ever tasted. Yum nua ($5.95), a Thai salad, is listed among the appetizers. Its Lao counterpart, larb ($8.95), is considered an entre. Both are made with beef (pork and chicken are other options). The perfectly grilled beef has just the right texture. Fork tenderness is not a goal here. The yum nua has small slices of meat with skinned and seeded cucumber, onion and tomato that actually has flavor. The salad comes with a dressing of lime juice and flakes of hot red pepper. It is a tad sweet by Thai standards, but still makes for a fine beef salad. As good as the yum nua is, the larb is even better. The minced meat allows the similar spice flavors to intermingle. Fresh mint is an added element, as is the crunch of toasted rice powder. When traveling in Laos a few years ago, I encountered an excellent larb made with duck meat. It would be a perfect addition to this menu.

An item that stands out is Grandma Chanta’s Special ($9.95), a family recipe of pork or chicken sausage. The pork sausage may be a bit fatty, but it is deliciously flavored with Laotian spices, which means plenty of hot pepper. It is served over green papaya salad that curiously is not sold separately. This is a very simple version flavored with fish sauce, palm sugar, red pepper and some tomato and carrot. Other versions often add crushed peanuts, long beans and perhaps dried shrimp. Papaya salads are found throughout northern Thailand and Laos, as not everything is meant to be spicy. Another specialty here is an unusual dumpling stir-fry ($13.95). The small dumplings have a filling of fish, shrimp and crabmeat. Vegetables include zucchini, onion, carrot, asparagus, black mushrooms, scallions and water chestnuts. The brown sauce is sweet and almost candy-like.

It is unusual for one kitchen to prepare three different cuisines so well. While many of the ingredients are shared in common, the flavors are not. The bar offers a few beers and a very minimal wine list. Desserts include rice pudding and even deep-fried taro that is mercifully sweetened with honey. The Mekong Cafe is a restaurant that I have long been waiting for: It sets noteworthy standards for the foods of Southeast Asia.

5930 W. North Ave. (414) 257-2228 $-$$ Credit Cards: MC, VS, DS Smoke-Free

Photos by Jessica Kaminski


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