When asked how his Vietnamese BYO has managed to thrive since opening in 2010 in restaurant-rich Ridgewood, Mekong Grill chef/owner Tai Nham simply says, “We have very loyal customers.”
What Nham is probably too modest to say is that his customers are loyal because the Vietnamese food he serves in a warm and welcoming atmosphere is delicious and authentic. Though small, with just 36 seats, Mekong Grill is well lit, and the passion implied by its bright red walls carries through to the plate.
“Our food,” Nham says, “is generally lighter than Chinese or Thai, with lots of fresh vegetables, lettuce and bean sprouts. We also make good use of lemongrass, basil and mint; and fish sauce is a main ingredient in many of our dishes, sauces and marinades.”
The youngest of 11 children, Nham came to the United States with some of his siblings in 1984, when he was nine. In 1997, his older brothers and sisters opened the Viet Nam, a popular Vietnamese restaurant still extant in Spring Valley, New York. Nham helped out there, and in 2007 graduated from the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center) in Manhattan. Three years later he and his wife, Fay, who was born in America of Thai parents, opened Mekong Grill.
If you’re new to Vietnamese food, the menu’s dish names and categories can be daunting. Our knowledgeable server helped us make good choices. We were fortunate to have among us a friend who knows and loves Vietnamese food. She regards pho (pronounced fuh), the country’s signature soup, as a bellwether of a Vietnamese restaurant’s quality.
“Many pho broths taste flat, just meat flavor or just spices,” she said after a bowl of shredded chicken pho with rice noodles, bean sprouts, scallions, basil and cilantro. “Mekong’s broth is full flavored and nuanced. You get rich meat flavor, anise, a bit of tartness, and fresh herbs.”
Bun bo hue suong, in the pho section, is made with beef broth and beef, but Fay Nham says it isn’t a true pho. Infused with lemongrass and spicy shrimp paste, Mekong Grill’s version includes thin-sliced Vietnamese pork roll and two shrimp dumplings. In my two visits, this Hue-style soup was my favorite dish.
Two cool, moist rolls, in translucent rice wrappers, made excellent starters. Bo nuong cuon (lemongrass and grilled sliced flank steak) and chao tom cuo (grilled sugarcane with ground shrimp) were served with subtle peanut sauce, house-made nuoc mam (the classic Vietnamese fermented fish sauce) and Vietnamese vinaigrette, made with just sugar, vinegar and water, no oil.
Beef satay—skewers of marinated, grilled flank steak—were enjoyable, with a touch of sweetness, even though the beef was a bit chewy. Also worth ordering were fried half hen with sticky rice, and shaken beef, so called because the cubed flank steak is shaken in a hot wok with mushroom, onions, scallion and garlic. Tom chien bo, delicately battered and lightly fried shrimp, were served with garlic butter, a reminder of France’s colonial influence.
Rice vermicelli (known as bun) are served at room temperature. Our Mekong triple treat topped the noodles with warm lemongrass beef and honey-braised chicken and shrimp over sprouts, vegetables, basil and mint. The lemongrass flavor was defining yet not overwhelming. A banh xeo Vietnamese crepe, pan-fried crisp and filled with small shrimp, was flavorful if a bit oily.
The French influence returned with triumphant beignets, smaller and lighter than the New Orleans variety, three to an order, each with a different filling—vanilla custard, Nutella and raspberry.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Asian - Vietnamese
Price Details:Appetizers, $7-$11; soups, $10-$17; entrées, $12-$17; desserts, $5-$6, open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.
Ambience:Comfortably casual; warm, simple décor.
Service:Friendly and helpful.