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Thursday, April 12, 2012
Cafe Mekong is located next to Oasis World Market in a surprisingly occupied section of Blacksburg. In addition to Oasis, the seemingly blighted shopping center on the south end of town houses four restaurants and a handful of retail shops.
Cafe Mekong, which offers both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, is owned by the same folks who own Oasis.
The decor in Mekong is simple, almost generic. Booths line both walls while the central portion is occupied by small tables. The center of the back wall is crowned by a smart-looking bar/register and an inconspicuous entrance to the kitchen . Atop each table rests a bright red beacon of Sriracha hot sauce, hinting at the flavors to come.
We began our meal with a chicken satay appetizer ($4.95) featuring three large, skewered chicken breast portions and a small dish of peanut dipping sauce. Alone, the chicken strips are good; the meat is tender and has a nice, smoky flavor. The peanut sauce is somewhat sweeter than what I have tasted before in Thai dishes — perhaps a bit heavier on the tamarind, but delicious nonetheless. There is more than enough dip for the three skewers, so go heavy.
My dining companion ordered the Pad Thai, a complex melange of flavors and textures ($8.49). Preparation of Pad Thai is complicated, involving proper timing to ensure that the noodles do not become pasty and the meat does not become rubbery. I had only a small taste of the dish, but the flavors and textures were spot-on. Mekong brings its own personality to Pad Thai , but the nature of the dish is that it lends itself easily to the tastes of the chef.
Because I have never had the opportunity to sample Vietnamese food, I opted for the Vietnamese pork rice ($8.49). I received a large portion of thin pork strips, grilled and sliced against the grain. The meat showed the beautiful char marks of a scorching grill, and was bursting with the flavor of the Teriyaki-like marinade.
I was also brought a small dish of sticky, starchy rice and a cup of sweet chili fish sauce. I expected the sauce to be thicker, but it was a very thin, soupy sauce. I laid out a bed of rice, stirred in the pork and doused the whole platter with the sweet and spicy accompaniment. It was amazing — the meat was tender, lean and cooked to perfection. The whole dish felt so clean and filling, just well-married, wholesome ingredients touched by a bit of fire.
Cafe Mekong does a great job with its menu offerings. Although I admit to a persistent and hopeless Sriracha addiction, I did not dare sully the pure flavors with a cover-all condiment. I enjoyed the Vietnamese dishes more than I did the Thai dishes. The panang curry ($9.99) is quite good, and I have it on good account that the pho beef noodle is tasty.
Mekong offers dishes with flavor combinations not typical to the American palate, from the bun noodle dish with mint and carrots to the kalbi short ribs marinated in a soy/sesame/pear sauce. At this restaurant, there is certainly a unique taste pairing just waiting to teach your mouth what it does not yet know about food.
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