Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mekong Café

I think I may have missed the boat when I named this blog. It should have been, "Restaurants That Used to be Something Else." It seems like so many Milwaukee establishments inevitably turn over, run their course and then whimper off into the twilight. Such was the case with the old Gaslight, located on the Northeast corner of N. 60th St. and North Avenue.

I remember as a child going to the Gaslight, and immediately recognizing that it was not fine dining. Dark, ghastly interiors shrouded in light-sapping wood panelling, with wagon-wheel light fixtures and cramped wooden booths. I remember low, barreled ceilings and lackluster Supper Club style cuisine. I was not particularly sad to see it go.

What has replaced the Gaslight (and a Jamaican restaurant, and an Urban Fashion store, and a gambling/sports bar) is the Mekong Café, whose slogan is "One magical river, three enchanting cuisines." I certainly hope it's able to break the streak of failed businesses at this location.

The Mekong Café promises authentic Laos, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. And on that promise, it delivers. Named for the river in Asia which runs through or borders nearly every country in, well, Asia, the Mekong Café is a bit difficult to pin down. I don't think it really qualifies as a café -- the menu is extensive, and the atmosphere is refined, but not stuffy. The sheer variety of available dishes makes me think of it as a sort of study in Asian cuisine, and to a certain extent, it is. But it's certainly not clinical.

I was really convinced before going that a single restaurant that would attempt Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese food all at once would probably suffer a few pitfalls. My experience with restaurants that try to cover a lot of cultural ground tend to get caught up in one favorite, with the others singing back up. The Mekong Café avoids this entirely: the mix of the three cuisines is a love letter to Asian food, something of a celebration of the diversity and the common ties between three distinctly different, yet strikingly similar cooking styles.

The interior is nothing like I remember from the Gas Light. The front of the restaurant is open and airy, thanks to a large expanse of glass facing North Avenue. The building itself is a joyous creation, creamy brick and art-deco flourishes outside, and immense space inside. The ceilings, which are the original concrete of the building, are painted a flat black, and the walls are, well, a work of art.

What appears to be about 80-year-old paint, cracked and crazed, with outlines of bricks and splotches of plaster adorn the Western wall. Hints of antique terra cotta construction tile peek up from beneath the baseboards. The original art-deco tile floor adorns the entryway. Music is introduced into the recipe, too... authentic, culturally-appropriate music, which is at a level that brings a certain amount of credibility to the experience, but never calls too much attention to itself.

The menu goes on for miles. Dishes, for the most part, are split down cultural lines, with different sections for Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese. Each item is carefully described, and some menu items are even noted as being kid-friendly. The chef has made sure the dominant items in each dish are listed, but has left some of the intricacies of flavor to be discovered by the diner. I like that.

Andy, Lauren and I ordered two appetizers before our meal: chicken satay, and Laotian Beef Jerky.

The chicken satay was superb. Four thick, long chicken tenderloin pieces, tender beyond belief, and smacking of curry and coconut milk. The peanut sauce and sweet-sour sauce served with them were clearly homemade, and each one offered a different perspective for the chicken: exactly what a dipping sauce should do. The meat shouldn't hide behind an overpowering sauce, rather the sauce should inform the meat, bring to the front a different dimension than just the meat alone. I was impressed.

The Laotian Beef Jerky was one of those happy surprises in food that doesn't happen half as much as I'd like it to. Warm, beefy, spicy, salty, chewy, and tender all in the same dish. And plentiful! For six dollars, we got a portion that was perfect for the three of us. And with a dish of a red garlic dipping sauce, this has got to be one of the more exciting appetizers I've had in a long time. Both the chicken satay and the beef jerk whet our appetites, and left us wanting more: exactly what an appetizer should do!

Our entrées were just as enjoyable.

Lauren: Stir Fry Pineapple Chicken, from the Thai portion of the menu.

Andy: Stir Fry Combination, from the Laotian part of the menu.

Myself: Grandma Chantra's Special, from the Laotian part.

Lauren's chicken stir-fry was a marvelous concoction. The salty, garlicky brown sauce, albeit a bit staid, was a wonderful pair with the sweet-tart of the pineapple. The entire mix was very delicately spiced, but still had a depth of flavor that made it both fun and very satisfying.

Andy's stir-fry combination was breathtaking. The sauce had a very solid, bright foundation of citrus, with layers of both dark and funky basil, and medicinal cilantro. When I saw his plate arrive, my eyes immediately went to the giant strip of criss-cross cut squid on the top, and my mind recalled images of late-night Chinese buffets from college. "Oh, no," I thought, remembering the leatherette squid I've had in the past.

I have earned myself a time-out for all of my assumptions so far tonight, as the squid was the star of the stir-fry, being absolutely melt-in-your-mouth tender, with a delicate, milky flavor.

My chicken sausage may have been the sleeper hit of the evening: rich, meaty, and assertive, it had an entire menagerie of flavors all vying for top billing. I have never had anything quite like it. Garlic, onion, lemongrass, and a host of herbs all elbowed their way into the top notes.

Food and music are innately tied together: they both appeal to very visceral senses, and so it's no wonder why the two are used so often to describe the other. If my sausage at Mekong Café were to be compared to a piece of music, it would have to be something by Poulenc. Quirky, goofy, but sophisticated, and still deeply beautiful. I'm still trying to figure out everything I tasted, and I just can't quite narrow it down. Crispy on the outside, firm and meaty on the inside, Grandma Chantra must be an amazing cook.

My only gripe for my dish (and, really, for the evening) was the Papaya salad that came with my sausage. I asked our bubbly, kind waitress what the best option was, either the salad or steamed veggies, and she said the salad was traditional. Trusting her word, I ordered it at a medium spice level. However, when it arrived, I became keenly aware the amount of red chilies was substantial, and by the fourth or fifth forkful, the salad was almost unbearable.

Mekong Café was exceeded my expectations ten-fold tonight. The space is fun and intriguing, the menu compelling and expansive, the food is downright explosive, and the experience is both laid-back but undeniably refined. These are the types of restaurants I love: great food, great setting, and great people behind the operation. I recommend Mekong Café whole-heartedly, and can only hope the succeed in a location that has so often failed in the past. I wish them the best of luck.

Report Card
Atmosphere: B+
Funky, contemporary interior spaces complement the food well, while giving more than a generous nod to the historic nature of the building. High ceilings allow for conversations to carry a little bit, but this is a minor complaint.

Prices: A-
Portion size, food quality, and price really come together here. You get a lot of great, authentic food, and pay a very reasonable amount for it.

Service: B
On a relatively quiet night, our waitress was attentive, but not intrusive. Our food arrived exceedingly fast.

Food: A
Exceptional. Exciting flavors, challenging combinations, and a vast number of choices. Just be careful how hot you order!

Mekong Cafe on Urbanspoon


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