09 August 2009

Cheap n' Tasty: Mekong Cafe

I always walk past Mekong Cafe, the dingy little Vietnamese noodle house on Vivian St, yet I had never been inside until last week. I had heard good things about their pho bo, though, and was curious to find out for myself. Plus, the table settings, complete with the tray full of various condiments and a box of tissues, was straight out of a scene in Southeast Asia.

Upon examining their menu, the item that excited me the most was not one of their various pho soups, nor the fresh and fried spring rolls available. On the back page, a list of beverages, specifically milkshakes that screamed tropical Asia: jackfruit, durian, avocado... While unconventional for New Zealand, avocado milkshakes were one of my favourite drinks while living in Singapore. Sweet, milky, with a hint of cooling avocado flavour - of course I immediately ordered one.

It arrived true to form, with that pale-green tinge so reminiscent of travels in a much warmer place. And it didn't disappoint - though slightly heavy on the condensed milk flavour, it was just as refreshing as I remembered. Nevermind that it's still winter here..

Since we were pretty hungry we had Mekong's special spring rolls ($6) as an entree. I'm not sure what makes these different from their regular spring rolls, as they tasted pretty standard to me, and a little over-fried, though still quite good.

I had the combination rare & cooked beef pho ($10), which was served with a plate of bean sprouts, coriander and a lemon wedge, which I immediately dumped atop the plentiful rice noodles and sliced beef swimming in the broth. It was pretty satisfying, though I thought the broth was a little lacking in complexity (possibly because it only had a few little bits of green floating around as opposed to the more generous herbaceousness I'm used to?). This wasn't too big of a problem once the tableside condiments worked their wonder (especially the homemade chilli paste/sauce). I thought that the rare beef to cooked beef ratio was pretty low, though this is understandable for a $10 dish, and the slices of rare beef that I did find were at the perfect tenderness. All up, though, it's a great value at $10 (I could only finish half, electing to take the rest home for the next day's breakfast), and definitely tasty.

I think the real star of the show, though, was E's be bung ($10), a bowl of rice noodles, stir-fried beef, meatballs, cut up spring rolls, and shredded carrot, flavoured with fresh mint leaves, a bit of chilli, and ground peanuts.

With a few additions from the condiment tray, E mixed the whole thing together and the result was delightful. The noodles were toothsome, the flavour full of umami and the fresh mint added that unmistakable Vietnamese flair. Next time this is what I'll be ordering, no doubt.

Although we were stuffed, I insisted on ordering dessert. The backlit plastic signboard on the wall advertised a curious-looking dish labelled simply as "hot mung bean" ($3) and I had to know what it was.

Two gooey rice dumplings arrived, floating in sweetened coconut milk and topped with ground peanuts. I wondered what the "mung bean" part was all about, until I bit into one of the dumplings which was filled with a yellow bean paste. This dessert was pretty enjoyable, similar to the Japanese daifuku (sweet rice dumplings filled with red bean paste) I loved eating in Japan. I'm not sure if most people would like it, though - E found the textures a bit strange - but at $3, anyone can afford to be adventuresome!

Although the ambience isn't spectacular (glaring fluorescent lights leave little to the imagination) and it looks kind of dodgy, Mekong Cafe far exceeded my expectations. Service was friendly, and food was delivered quickly, even as they negotiated several takeaway orders during our time there. Plus, for 2 people at dinnertime our bill came to $33 - including both entree and dessert! That's pretty hard to beat.

Rating: 3.5/5

Mekong Cafe
138 Vivian St
Te Aro
(04) 801 8099


Juli Ryan said...

Thanks for your kind comment over at Wellington Road. I adore Vietnamese food! I must make the effort to get in to town, so I can check this place out. And I can't wait to read more of your blog. Would love to hear more about your Kiwi-American-Kiwi story. Wow.

millie mirepoix said...

Thanks! My American upbringing often shows up in my food choices, though I never had much experience with Vietnamese before moving here. Love it now, though!

N said...

Hi Millie
I also tried Mekong for the first time a couple of weeks ago, over a year since I first walked past and thought I should! I think your review is spot on - it isn't sophisticated, but it is good! I shall have to be brave and try an avocado milkshake next time...

millie mirepoix said...

N - yes, I can definitely recommend the avocado milkshake! It's the jackfruit and durian ones that I'm not brave enough to try... though fresh durian wasn't too bad when I tried it

M said...

Whoa. This place still exists! It's been like 10 years since I ate noodles there (was even a regular then). Glad to know that they haven't changed much :)

millie mirepoix said...

Yeah, seems like one of those places that hasn't had a facelift in years... but charmingly so! And you can't really argue with good noodles.