After 30 years, we can safely bid adieu to the unpleasant connotation of the word "Mekong," as in the Vietnam War's Mekong Delta. Now it represents a fresh, pared-down cuisine a notch up from Southeast Asian street food. Prepared and presented by brother and sister Tuan and Sarah Nguyen, Mekong serves quick-but-healthful takeout or dine-in fare along fast-gentrifying Southeast 13th Avenue, which also boasts a high-end cheese shop, a wine bar/shop, Grand Central Bakery and several popular Italian restaurants.
When Mekong opened in mid-September on Sellwood's Antique Row, it was swamped with customers lusting for simple Southeast Asian food. The staff could hardly keep up with a hungry neighborhood pleased to order at the counter, sans table service. Luckily, a larger kitchen staff has popped up to deal with the heavy weekend traffic.
The restaurant's appealing design (a bamboo-pole motif frames a big table that seats about 10) harmonizes with the clean, inexpensive food. About 30 diners can sit inside, with a few more fitting at sidewalk tables.
As refreshing and affordable as the choices are—nothing tops $8.25 (garlic shrimp skewers over vermicelli noodles)—the menu is limited. We've stopped in three times and exhausted almost all combinations.
Four to five rice or noodle entrees ($7-$8.25) are served with skewers or chunks of either honey-lemongrass chicken, sesame beef, garlic shrimp, pork or tofu. Choose fragrant jasmine rice dishes and you'll find fresh cucumber, lively-looking lettuce, chives, fresh tomatoes and housemade nuoc cham, a fish sauce jazzed up with vinegar, sugar, salt, fresh garlic and chili peppers.
Vermicelli entrees, served intentionally lukewarm to cool, come with a fresh little salad of lettuce, bean sprouts, cukes, slim-sliced carrots, daikon, mint and chopped peanuts.
Appetizers are predictable: crispy eggrolls with fish sauce or two fat salad rolls with a rich, plummy peanut sauce cost $3.50. Tofu rolls, for 25 cents more, are also coupled with plum-peanut sauce. Wrapped tight, they sport a fresh scallion stem tucked into the rice paper.
The Nguyens are working on obtaining a liquor license. But for now, there's iced Vietnamese coffee with enough sweetened evaporated milk to keep you revved for the rest of the day.
Mekong: A Vietnamese Grill, 7952 SE 13th Ave., 808-9092. Lunch 11 am-3 pm, dinner 5-9 pm Monday-Saturday. $ Inexpensive.