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Dining Winners

Best New Restaurant

Mekong Delta

Frank Klein

105 W. Saratoga St., (410) 244-8677

Posted 9/16/2009

The hardest part about eating out in Charm City is the sameness. At times, it feels like everyone is offering new American or comfort food; menus and dining rooms look alike; it's hard to justify choosing one establishment over the other. It may be a chicken and egg problem. Are restaurants catering to our narrow tastes or have our tastes become confined to sliders, mac 'n' cheese, and crab cakes because that's what we're served?

And yet 2008-2009 saw some welcome additions to the local dining scene. Restaurant Sabor and Mari Luna Latin Grille brought Latin-influenced fine dining to the county. In the city, Miss Irene's put on lipstick and heels (OK, chandeliers and white tablecloths) and transformed into a grownup dinner spot, and Taverna Corvino went back to the Italian roots of Vespa, the penultimate restaurant to inhabit that space. Baba's Mediterranean Kitchen made sure our appetite for baba ghanouj was sated, and the Harford Road corridor added to its growing reputation as the hottest new neighborhood for food with the opening of Hamilton Tavern.

All of these restaurants have merit. But our award this year goes to a restaurant that epitomizes the can-do spirit despite a time of economic distress, that presents crafted, nuanced dishes served with grace and kindness and affordable to most, if not all. It's not going to win any awards for ambience. Not everything is available all the time, and sometimes the kitchen gets overwhelmed. But Mekong Delta, the mom-and-pop Vietnamese storefront at the corner of Saratoga and Cathedral streets run by the married couple, Tuyen Vo and Luan Nguyen, is such a pleasure that the irregularities merit our patience.

We love the translucent spring rolls, generous pretty packages of salmon or shrimp or chicken and cilantro and sprouts bound in rice paper. Or the lemongrass beef stir fry, with its high fragrant tones and an undercurrent of savory caramelization from where the beef browned in the pan. The Vietnamese crepe surprises with lightness, but it is the pho that please the senses--all the senses--more than anything else. Its heady scent, familiar, yet exotic in its pairing of cinnamon and star anise, cardamom and clove; the layers of flavor created by the slow simmering of meat and spice and bone; the textural sensation of warm liquid, chewy meat, crunchy sprouts, and tender green leaves, all speak to a steady hand in the kitchen, and perhaps, a little magic.

Baltimore could use more spots like Mekong Delta, small operations with clear visions and terrific, well-executed dishes, made and served with care. Mekong Delta brings a whole new meaning to comfort food.

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Other Awards for Best New Restaurant:

Woodberry Kitchen, 9/17/2008

Rocket to Venus, 9/19/2007

Salt, 9/20/2006

Pazo, 9/21/2005

Soo’s Kimchee House, 9/22/2004

Kali's Court Mezze, 9/17/2003

Chameleon Café, 9/18/2002

Blue Agave Restaurante y Tequileria, 9/19/2001

The Bicycle, 9/13/2000

Atlantic, 9/15/1999

Holy Frijoles, 9/18/1996

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