Years ago, living in Atlanta, there was a great Vietnamese restaurant named Cha Gio right around the corner from our hugely overpriced apartment. The menu was descriptive enough that neophytes to SE Asian cuisine could order with confidence, the service was friendly, the space clean and inviting. We dined there often, my favourite dish being their Cha Gio Special Shrimp – crsipy fried shrimp in a spicy batter. I was fortunate that the first Vietnamese restaurant I went to was so good and use this place as a benchmark for all other Vietnamese restaurants.
Since moving to Richmond I haven’t found a whole lot that was good. Over the years I have been to quite a few and most have been quite forgettable and others must have agreed as they seem to have disappeared or ‘evolved’ into something else. House of Vietnam, in Short Pump, is one exception but it’s quite a drive in increasingly nasty traffic and falls into the ‘good but not that good’ category. This Tuesday last, with nothing in the kitchen and no desire to go to the grocery store, M suggested a quick bite out. Drawing blanks on the requirements (cheap, quick, and close by), I pulled up the 804’s good life restaurant listings and started searching.
A Vietnamese place called Mekong caught my eye and seemed to fit all the requirements, although we weren’t sure exactly where on Broad it was except that the street number was fairly close to my store. So, at closing time for the bookstore, off we went. It turned out to be in a building next to a questionable nightclub whose name has changed repeatedly over the year and directly underneath the law offices of an equally questionable politician, Manoli Loupassi.
A few first impressions… Poor signage out front. The coin fountain at the entrance is in desperate need of cleaning as does the carpeting (actually the carpet just needs to be replaced). The chairs and tables look like they were purchased from a cheap hotels going out of business sale. The place needs a fresh coat of paint. The place is much larger than it appears from the outside, room after room after room. It was Tuesday and they were packed and quite a few of the customers were Asian (always a good sign).
Seated quickly we took a look at the menu. It was fairly long and bore some resemblance to their online menu…..
NOTE TO RESTAURANT MANAGERS – Don’t forget to update your websites when you update your menus!
…. I had a strange impression, based on the small print of the menu, that the menu was mass produced for multiple restaurants and had been ordered from a catalog, but I could be wrong on that. Oddly, for a Vietnamese restaurant, they had one of the most extensive beer lists I’ve seen and a separate Belgian beer list that rivals Capital Ale. The beer description are a tad suggestive. Ok, a lot suggestive. If you’re easily offended skip that part of the menu.
Drinks and eats were ordered. My gin and tonic came in a large and guady glass and was very strong (happy me!). First course were spring and shrimp rolls. Crispy and fresh tasting they left no impression of being frozen. Finn liked his vegetable roll so much he couldn’t wait for it to cool down and kept burning his mouth. The peanut dipping sauce was also a hit.
M ordered a grilled platter for her entree. The very large plate contained grilled pieces of beef and chicken, crisp lettuces and veggies, noodles, and a large stack of rice paper for wrapping it all up in. For me it was crispy noodles with shrimp, scallops, and squid. Finn received a plate of broken rice with shrimp and chicken although he preferred the chicken off M’s plate (even though it tasted the same) as well as her noodles. This may have been for the best as we discovered how sticky broken rice is and Finn managed to cover his clothes with it.
Everything tasted fresh. The seafood and the vegetables were all done perfectly. The flavours delicate and enjoyable. A nice change from the heavy handed Chinese sauces one finds in so many places. The only complaint may have been that the chicken was a bit dry but I don’t see how one could avoid that with such thin slices. For a little pungent kick I added fish sauce to nearly everything. Finn liked the fish sauce so much he asked for a little pool on his plate that he proceeded to dip his finger into and then lick off. If you’ve never tried fish sauce you really must. It enhances the taste of a dish without the sodium overkill of soy sauce. I really should stock it at home and make use of it there.
My initial thoughts on service was that we were going to have an issue. The waiter bordered on brusque to the point of rude to start. Observing him it was obvious he had a large table that was running him to death for every little thing. By the time they finished he became much more pleasant and attentive.
Bottom line was that this was one of the best Vietnamese meals I’ve had in quite a while. Two cocktails, three appetizers and three entrees for less than $50 made it quite the value for such large portions. May have to add this place to our dance card.