By Jenny Bo
Casual Weeknight Dinner
Some of the most beloved restaurants are often unassuming hole-the-wall spots tucked away in a suburban strip mall somewhere, hidden gems only known to those who live in the local neighborhood. Jonathan Gold (R.I.P.) knew this better than anyone. He introduced L.A. (and the rest of the country) to countless fantastic yet previously unpublicized restaurants in the city’s diverse neighborhoods. Since watching City of Gold at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival three years ago (I highly recommend the documentary), I’ve made an extra effort to try more restaurants that are off the beaten path.
Of all of the places I have explored in the past few years, one of my favorite and most frequented for weeknight meals, is Mekong Vietnamese Cuisine, sandwiched between a Food Lion and a 24-hour gym near Brier Creek. I first learned about Mekong from a review in the News and Observer (and you can read what Greg Cox thought here).
Mekong is owned and operated by a local Vietnamese family who have lived in NC for decades. Their focus is on southern Vietnamese dishes. The atmosphere is casual and relaxed. Friendly waitstaff are knowledgeable about menu items and service is lightning fast. The menu consists of a variety of appetizers and several different kinds of Bún (rice vermicelli noodle), Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), and Bánh Mì (Vietnamese sandwich). There are also rice dishes, specialty dishes, and daily specials on the board behind the bar. If you’re a soup-lover like me and can’t help but always order the Pho at Vietnamese restaurants, you won’t be disappointed – the beef pho broth arrives at the table steaming hot, and the flavors are rich and concentrated (not watered down like I often find at other places).
Or if you’re looking to try something more unique, the spicy beef noodle soup takes the already flavorful pho broth to a new level with the addition of house-made pork bologna, tofu, and shrimp to accompany a healthy dose of throat-tingling sambal and an herbal adjustment that adds cilantro rather than basil.
Mekong also boasts one of the best Banh Mi sandwiches I’ve had in the Triangle (when they have it – they have been out of bread on a couple occasions, especially around the weekend). For $7 you can get a perfect French baguette stuffed with house-made pickles, jalapenos, herb salad, pate, and your choice of meat, with a side of crunchy, buttery shrimp chips. I recommend the combination, which features the pork bologna and Vietnamese cold cuts. The funny thing is that my husband and I first went to Mekong for the Pho, but now we keep going back because of these other delicious items on the menu.
Even though we have little reason to go to Brier Creek or RTP on a Thursday night, we often find our way to Mekong. The great menu, fast service, reasonable prices, and convenience (you don’t need a reservation, or a change of clothes if you’re dropping by after the gym) are perfect for making it a go-to option for busy weeknights.
It’s also worth pointing out that the owners of Mekong have recently opened MKG Kitchen in the new Morgan Street Food Hall. I’ve only tried the banh mi off the slightly scaled-back menu, but it’s just as good as the original and it’s a wonderful addition to downtown Raleigh.
What to Order:
Flavorful and dense Vietnamese sausage, along with vermicelli, lettuce, cucumber, cilantro and crispy bits all wrapped in a thin rice paper.
The Sausage Roll appetizer comes with 2 rice paper wrappers filled with house made sausage, vermicelli, lettuce, cucumber, cilantro and crispy wafer. Served with Mekong’s house made fish sauce.
Combination Bánh Mì
It’s a decent-sized sandwich stuffed with ham, bologna, and Vietnamese cold cuts – I think maybe some kind of pig ear terrine – with herbs, cucumber, jalapeno, pickled daikon and carrot, and a schmear of pate and mayo mixed with butter, on an incredibly light baguette. What’s not to like?
Spicy Beef Noodle Soup
The best. Must-get if you love hot and spicy soups. Note that it is really spicy though – the tears-streaming-down-my-face-but-I-can’t-stop-eating kind of spicy.
Extra shrimp chips!
Get a side of shrimp chips because they are delicious, and then try dipping them in your Spicy Beef Noodle Soup – the chips absorb the rich broth but somehow stay crunchy. Yum!
The Combination Pho comes with well-done beef, rare beef, meatball and tendon.