The first time you visit Mekong, you might get the impression that you’ve just walked into an ordinary strip mall Vietnamese restaurant.
Granted, the decor of the immaculate dining room – framed pen-and-ink landscapes flanked by bamboo sconces on wainscoted walls, stylish contemporary Asian chairs at glossy blonde wood tables – is a decided notch up from the standard pho shop. But the TV screen suspended high in one corner and the soda fountain at the back of the room are giveaways, as are the bottles of fish sauce, hoisin and Sriracha on the tables.
At first blush, the menu reinforces that initial impression with an offering that covers all the traditional bases, from pho to banh mi. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover a few surprises tucked in among the familiar favorites.
House-made dumplings, for one. Plump, crescent-shaped pillows filled with a blend of minced pork, ginger and garlic, then lightly pan-seared for a quasi-pot sticker effect – they’re so flavorful just as they are that you’re tempted to skip the soy dipping sauce they come with.
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But wait, what’s that pale, almost powder-fine stuff sprinkled on top of the dumplings? Crushed peanuts, you say? Good guess, since you’re sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant. But no, that would be a swing and a miss. You’ve just been thrown a culinary curveball in the form of finely grated Parmesan cheese. And it’s a surprisingly successful tweak, a novel way of delivering umami in a cuisine that customarily relies on fish sauce for that taste element.
Clearly, Mekong is not your father’s Vietnamese restaurant.
But it is – literally – Lien To’s father’s Vietnamese restaurant. And her mother’s.
Than To and Hoa Tran fled their home in the Mekong Delta region in the wake of the Vietnam War and came to North Carolina some 35 years ago. For two decades, they owned Chinese restaurants in the eastern part of the state before relocating to the Triangle. Inspired by the growing popularity of their native cuisine, they opened Mekong in February near RTP in Alexander Village shopping center. Husband and wife share cooking duties.
Lien To, who manages the restaurant (three other siblings are involved to varying degrees in the operation), notes that her parents want to share the same food in the restaurant that they cook and eat at home. For the most part, that translates to the southern Vietnamese dishes they learned to cook growing up.
Their repertoire is not frozen in time, though, as Lien To explains: “There’s Pizza Hut and McDonald’s in Vietnam now, so people have gotten to like cheese.”
As for the dumpling deviation, “We had some Parmesan in the kitchen one time when my father was making dumplings, and he just sprinkled some on. We liked it so much he put it on the menu.”
No doubt there’s a similar story behind the spicy tomato aioli that’s served with fried calamari. And “fish sauce wings,” which turn out to be nothing like the traditional street food version made famous in this country by the James Beard Award-winning Pok Pok in Portland, Ore. In Mekong’s version, the wings aren’t sticky but gratifyingly crunchy-crusted, and they’re served with an addictive cornstarch-thickened fish sauce dip on the side.
Still, the bulk of the offering is traditional. Across the board, the qualities that most distinguish Mekong from your run-of-the-mill strip mall eatery are scratch, prepared-to-order food and attractive, thoughtful presentation. The dumplings are served on a gleaming white rectangular platter, the accompanying dip in a small bowl with a daisy petal-fluted rim.
Mekong’s banh mi raise the local bar for the sandwich with top-notch ingredients: house-pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeño and a variety of meat options, from grilled chicken to homemade Vietnamese-style bologna. They’re served on an 11-inch baguette smeared with a mayo, butter and foie gras spread. The sandwich comes with shrimp chips, a thoughtful nod to Americans’ penchant for sandwiches served with chips.
Spring rolls (cha gio) arrive piping hot and crisp, generously filled with a savory melange of ground pork, cat ear mushrooms and crunchy vegetables. The supple, translucent wrappers of fresh summer rolls (goi cuon) leave no doubt that the rolls were assembled to order. Same goes for sausage rolls, a twist on the summer rolls amped up with house-made Vietnamese pork sausage.
Vermicelli dishes (bun) are edible kaleidoscopes of bright veggies and the protein of your choice on a bed of rice noodles, garnished with – yes indeed, this time it is in fact crushed peanuts. The combination bun (shrimp, grilled pork and fried spring roll) is worth the $12 splurge.
Mekong’s rendition of the classic meal-in-a-bowl beef noodle soup, pho – its steamy surface glistening with beads of fat and wafting a deeply beefy perfume that’s subtly redolent of star anise – is among the two or three very best around. Pho is offered in the two traditional sizes, regular (ample for most of us) and hot tub.
You’ll find pho’s fiery cousin, bun bo Hue, among the half-dozen less common traditional dishes under the “Specialties” heading. In that same section, you’ll also find shaken beef (aka shaking beef, so called because of its energetic cooking method), featuring tender cubes of ribeye in a rich brown sauce, and a delightfully refreshing entree salad of julienne lotus root tossed in a citrus-fish sauce vinaigrette and topped with shrimp and soy-marinated pork.
I think you get the idea. It’s hard to go wrong at Mekong, whether you crave the comfort of the familiar or are looking to shake things up a bit. Throw in a casual, inviting setting and friendly, attentive service, and you’ve got a Vietnamese restaurant that I’m sure even Dad would appreciate.
2121 T.W. Alexander Drive, Morrisville
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual contemporary Asian
Noise level: low to moderate
Service:friendly and attentive
Recommended: dumplings, fish sauce fried chicken, sausage rolls, pho, lotus root salad, banh mi
Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.