No Frills, Just Pho

From St. Pete's "little Vietnam" comes a more traditional Asian taste.

click to enlarge A LITTLE DIFFERENT: Pho ingredients with shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice paper. - SHAWN JACOBSON
A LITTLE DIFFERENT: Pho ingredients with shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice paper.

A cluster of strip malls on St. Petersburg's 34th Street is quietly fostering a "little Vietnam." The cultural enclave is still in its embryonic phase; if you blink as you barrel down the highway, you might miss the Vietnamese grocer, the Vietnamese video store and the Vietnamese jewelry shop. But, if you're anything like me, the handful of Vietnamese restaurants will stop you in traffic. My healthy addiction to pho (the fragrant noodle soup that is a staple of street-corner cuisine in Vietnam) keeps me on a constant lookout for sources. I figured that I'd hit the Pinellas county mother lode in this neighborhood, but I found more than I'd bargained for in Mekong.

Due to its surroundings, the restaurant has little incentive to Westernize its offerings. Though each menu item is followed by a description in slightly broken English, this concession was occasionally as puzzling to my mainly-Caucasian crew as the transliterated food names themselves. After reading about the "hot vinegar fire pot on table," Sailor Boy was determined to order it, if only to discover what the hell it was. Unlike the swank Café B.T. or Noodle Lounge in Tampa, Mekong features dishes that cater to Vietnamese immigrants. If you have a hankering for hot salted lemonade (yes, there is such a thing, and its $1.75), Mekong is the place for you.

I'd spent the past week schlepping my friend, a visiting Chicago chef, to a variety of local restaurants, glad to have his culinary expertise on hand to decipher some of the more impenetrable mysteries of my work. Like a member of some sort of Cuisine Scene Investigation unit, he could immediately identify every sauce, every herb, every tiny nuance that went into the preparation of our meals. His unerring aim was astonishing, invaluable, and finally a little bit annoying - so I took him to Mekong, and stumped him good. We're still a bit cloudy on one of the vegetables in the volcano pot, though my chef friend reports he's narrowed it down to lotus root or sugar cane.

In fact, the only challenge at Mekong is keeping mum while that one member of your party (there's one in every group) foregoes the Vietnamese specialties for another boring round of chicken with broccoli ($6.95). Here then, are a few dishes available at Mekong that will open a stick-in-the-mud's culinary horizons to Vietnamese flavors while not offending his or her oh-so-sensitive palate:

1. Pho Tai ($5). Other types of pho might include tripe or tendon, but this one has thin slices of cooked or rare beef (the rare cooks pretty quickly in the broth, and tastes more tender) floating in a fragrant broth with long, thin rice noodles. This meal-in-a-bowl is accompanied by a dish of bean spouts, fresh basil and lime, and a variety of sauces, from tart fish oil to spicy sriracha.

With all of the fixings, it's easy to spice up the soup according to one's mood and taste buds. In keeping with tradition, Mekong serves its pho with a small, short-handled spoon and a pair of chopsticks. It takes a few lessons in dexterity to work with the materials, but once you've got it mastered, you'll become a devotee to the dish as well.

2. Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi ba le, $2.50). Though it will never replace the Cuban in this town, Mekong's sandwiches, replete with unusual touches like shredded carrot, cilantro and cucumber slices on crusty French bread, make a good alternative. It's definitely a cheap lunch, and with a side of sweet peanut sauce, it can contend with most anything the local Subway serves.

3. Sweet and sour shrimp (tom xao, chua ngot, $8.95). Mekong's version incorporates a tart, orange cream sauce very different than the neon-pink gel most associate with sweet and sour. The shrimp were nothing to write home about ("frozen," my chef friend announced, relieved that he could provide some input), but with chunks of fresh, perfectly sautéed pineapple, peppers and baby corn, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. I recommend that diners unprepared to tackle the intricacies of shredded pork skin and veggies in uncooked rice paper wraps ($3 for two, and very good, if you like that sort of thing) start here.

Of course, being an adventurous lot, we decided to order dishes we'd never heard of. First on the list was canh, or "volcano pot soup." Since we were already treading in unfamiliar waters, we stuck to the shallow end with chicken hot and sour volcano pot ($8/$16). The delicious soup was served family style in a large metal saucepan with a ladle and a handful of smaller bowls.

Unlike pho, canh doesn't contain any rice, only pieces of meat (chicken, in this case), and dozens of stewed vegetables. We identified carrot, cabbage, onion and okra, but others we simply enjoyed without classification. ("Lotus root or sugar cane, I'm telling you," the chef reports back from Chicago. Ehh. The jury's still out. We did ask the employees, but no one in our party could translate the reply.)

Mekong's coup de grace, however, was the aforementioned hot vinegar fire pot on table ($17.95), which, as it turns out, was not as inexplicable as we originally assumed. The fire pot was a sterno cooker on the table, filled with simmering hot vinegar, into which we tossed shrimp, squid and pieces of beef, Mongolian hot-pot style.

After cooking, we fished them out, adorned them with carrots, cilantro, cucumber slices, cold cooked vermicelli and any number of sauces, wrapped them in fresh rice paper, and went to town. In fact, the only confusing element of the meal was that the rice paper wraps had to first be softened in a dish of hot water before they could be put to any use (have your server show you how).

The restaurant isn't the most well-decorated on the planet, but there are a few pieces of intricately carved wood and a Buddha or two to remind diners of the eatery's genre. Indeed, most of the furnishings seemed designed more for utility than aesthetic, but I found I didn't notice the décor; I was too fascinated by the food.

Most of the large round tables at Mekong come equipped with Lazy Susans, which facilitate family-style meals, allow everyone equal access to the sauces that are served with each dish, and encourage diners to try something a little bit different than their usual Asian fare.

Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.

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