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Mekong builds on its successful formula for Vietnamese dining with an expanded dining room and karaoke. 

Sing for Your Supper

Vietnamese food seems to have won a following in the Richmond area, as well it should, for we are lucky to have several good restaurants that specialize in this delicious cuisine. Mekong Restaurant is a prime example. Unlike many Asian restaurants where bare-bones budgets reflect in comfort and ambiance if not always the food, Mekong is comfortable — the lighting is good, the ambiance is inviting. And with success they have added an additional dining room in the rear, adjacent to the bar and nonsmoking area, with a large screen and Vietnamese karaoke.

Mekong is popular with young professionals and grad students, who often handle their chopsticks as easily as a fork, as well as with a diverse sampling of the rest of us. And you'll find a fair number of Vietnamese here, also.

Like all cuisines , the Vietnamese have absorbed from those with whom they share borders as well as those, welcome and unwelcome, who penetrated the borders. It makes for an interesting mix of flavors from subtle to spicy. Some seem distinctly Thai or Chinese; others seem to suggest a touch of French influence. Much Vietnamese food is wonderfully light and nutritionally correct. And those wonderful Vietnamese noodle soups can be as comforting as and maybe even tastier than Mom's.

The menu, recently revised, can be somewhat daunting — almost 150 items. Obviously it takes more than one visit to get a fair estimate of the flavors. Since the restaurant opened five years ago, I've sampled several and have rarely been disappointed.

Mekong is also open for lunch and has almost two-dozen inexpensive ($4.95-$5.95) combinations which include a cup of soup, a spring roll and an entree. That's a good deal.

[image-1]Photo by Stacy Warner / richmond.comThe appetizer sampler (Mon An Choi) for two ($5.95) is a good place to start if you don't yet have a favorite. The fresh spring roll ($1.35) is sometimes too heavy with rice noodles but I can't fault the crispy ones ($1.35). The crepes ($2.95) — a bit of French influence — are interesting, but perhaps my favorite is the yellow pancake (Banh Xeo) ($5.95), filled with shrimp, pork, onion, scallions, bean sprouts and fresh vegetables.

Soups are the staple of Vietnamese cooking, eaten all through the day. Those who know Asian food will be familiar with the appetizer soups ($1.50-$1.75). At Mekong, a cup of wonton soup is loaded with wontons, and a cup of vegetable soup is simply a refreshing julienne of vegetables with hot broth poured over them — a dieter's dream. But there are also serious pho or noodle soups ($4.95-$5.95), almost two dozen, which are really a light meal.

Having often sampled the rice noodle and broken rice platters ($5.25-$7.95) and the roll-your-own grilled platters ($11.50-$11.95), on a recent visit we went for heartier fare to suit our winter appetites.

The chef's specials ($9.95-$13.95) number more than a dozen and range from hot pots (in broth) to stir-frys with a multitude of ingredients. My clay-pot (stir-fry) combination was chock-full of shrimp (almost a dozen), pork, beef and chicken, along with fresh vegetables in a mild but interesting sauce. (Some sauces are designated "spicy" but that is a relative term — those we've had here are zesty but not palate-numbing.)

Jumbo shrimp in a sauce with ginger and scallions ($11.95) is complex in flavor and interesting in texture. And the jasmine rice is a wonderful foil. Of course, there are a dozen other seafood choices, and as many for seafood with chicken. Beef gets its fair share — the curried beef suggests Thailand across the border. And vegetables alone are dealt with in a dozen different ways.

We weren't offered dessert, which we would have turned down anyway. A fortune cookie and a mint are just enough. As usual, the service was courteous, professional and prompt.

Mekong has the right ingredients for a pleasant dining experience. It serves good food at a good value. And with its new karaoke machine, you might also get inspired to sing with your
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