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Pho Sure

A small Vietnamese restaurant is big on taste and charm

Sam Holden

Mekong Delta Cafe

Address:105 W. Saratoga St.
Baltimore, MD 

More on Mekong Delta Cafe.

By Mary K. Zajac | Posted 5/6/2009

To call an establishment a mom-and-pop restaurant invokes a slew of adjectives: homey, bustling, simple, affordable. It connotes comfort food and a comfortable atmosphere, the kind of place where tables are close together, inviting you to rub elbows and share conversations with a full spectrum of Baltimoreans, the kind of place where children of both the guests and the proprietors are welcome. Mekong Delta Café (105 W. Saratoga St., [410] 244-8677) is this place, complete with both a mom and a pop: proprietors Tuyen Vo, the mom who works behind the scenes creating the café's nuanced Vietnamese fare, and her husband, Luan Nguyen, who displays a gentle charm while doubling as host and server (their energetic little boy often makes an appearance in the dining room, as well).

Like all good mom-and-pops, décor is basic here. Plastic baskets of bottled condiments like garlic chili sauce and hoisin sit atop the restaurant's half a dozen vinyl-cloaked tables. The walls are goldish yellow, the carpet, a non-descript neutral. A table in the front window yields a view of a Saratoga Street bus stop. But like all good mom-and-pops, the food is pleasing and extremely reasonable with appetizers hovering under $4 and entrées and soups just under $10. The restaurant pours hot or chilled jasmine tea gratis, and diners can bring their own bottle without a corkage fee.

Tofu and noodle dishes dominate the generous number of vegetarian offerings on Mekong Delta's menu which also offers deep bowls of pho, as well as southern Vietnamese-style soups, and meat-based stir fries flavored with lime, lemongrass, or mint.

If the menu doesn't show a wide variety in terms of types of appetizers--you can have spring rolls or spring rolls--it makes up for it by offering the rolls with a variety of fillings including salmon, shrimp, beef, and pork. (There's also a fried spring roll tucked away on the other side of the menu away from the rest, but it was unavailable the night of our visit. "We were busy this afternoon," Nguyen explained apologetically, "and we ran out.")

The rice paper-wrapped spring rolls ($3.75, two per order) were completely refreshing on a warm night. Pale and nearly translucent, the pretty edible packages exuded freshness. Lemongrass beef gave one order a delicate heartiness, while the combination of chicken, pork, and shrimp was more subtle. Bean sprouts provided the crunch in both cases, and cilantro added color.

Diners can choose among different varieties of pho (our debate was between one with tiny meatballs and another with rare beef and tendon; the latter, pho dac biet, [$8.95] won out), but all come with a heaping plate of fresh green things--wedges of lime, sprigs of basil, vibrant slices of jalapeño--and more bean sprouts. These garnishes are part and parcel of pho, but Mekong Delta's version is wondrous without them. Fragrant with layers of spice and cilantro and chewy tendon and softer beef slices, this pho proves that in food, as in wine, the olfactory is as important as the gustatory. We used chopsticks to get every last bit of rice vermicelli from the bowl.

Hu tieu do bien ($8.95), a seafood soup from southern Vietnam, was subtler, with star anise and the gentle flavors of crab and shrimp in the forefront. We were satisfied with bun tom thit nuong ($8.50), tiny crispy morsels of ground pork and circlets of green onion tossed with slender slices of chicken breast over vermicelli; the Vietnamese crepe ($8.25), made from a rice flour batter and stuffed with chicken and shrimp, was an impressively light mixture of airiness, protein, and more (though maybe too much) bean sprout crispiness. The crepe covered the whole plate and was quite filling, despite the three other forks that kept digging into it. For the moment, Mekong Delta eschews dessert, but I didn't miss it one bit.

Despite the obvious skill in the kitchen, Mekong Delta is still very much a two-person operation, and this yields some inconsistencies, like the unavailability of some menu items. It also means you may wait for service (on the night we were there, Nguyen handled all tables), and may wait an inappropriately long time for everyone at your table to be served. It's my hope that diners will tolerate this awkwardness during the first few months of business because of the owners' graciousness and the time it will take them to gauge business (though these issues will need to be worked out, the sooner, the better). Still, I'm willing to be patient if that's what it takes to enjoy food this lovely.

Hmm, spring rolls or spring rolls?

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