Jan 18, 2017

A little slice of Laos at Mekong Café, Springfield, Ill.

When it comes to trying a different food or drink destination, my wife tends to adhere quite strongly to the adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression.  I, on the other hand, tend to be more forgiving than Punky when someplace initially disappoints, giving them at least a couple of tries to win me over.   Either way of looking at things is fine, of course, since we’re both very passionate about what we like (and what we don’t like). 

Mekong Café, in our hometown of Springfield, Ill., was one of those places Punky had written off years earlier as being uninspiring to her.  Among the numerous choices for Asian cuisine in Springfield, she already had her favorites, and Mekong was simply unable to impress her enough to make that list. 

I couldn’t figure out why.  I’ve always loved the place.  It’s a little worn, a little hidden and a little forgotten, but I’ve always considered the food to be excellent.  I was convinced to change Punky’s mind about Mekong.  Reluctantly, she eventually agreed to have lunch with me there, most likely because it’s so close to her workplace and she was tired of me babbling about their food every time we drove by. 

To find Mekong Café, you kind of have to know your way around Springfield.  It’s just south of the busy intersection of 2nd and South Grand.  A small sign latched onto an unimpressive looking brick building lets you know you’re there.  If you’re really lucky, you can snag one of the five parking spaces behind the building (and miss the alignment altering potholes); otherwise, you’re parking on the street. 

Here’s what you’ll likely see as you enter – just enough decor to know that you’re in the right place.  

The dining area is neither spectacular nor spacious.  There are only a dozen tables or so in the whole place.  But during any given weekday at lunchtime, the place is packed.  The mirror and black wall mask the entrances to the kitchen where the wait staff always seem to be busy weaving in and out of.   

Like many “fast casual” Asian restaurants, Mekong Café offers complimentary soup with their lunch entrees.  Isn’t it funny how something so simple in appearance can taste so good?  I mean, it’s just broth, onion, cabbage and scallion, right?  And if it’s your lucky day, you’ll find a slice of carrot or a piece of broccoli floating in it as well.  Yet, for some reason, this soup perfectly whets the appetite for more.

And at Mekong Café, that “more” can come from a variety of southeast Asian influences … and they seem to do all of them extremely well. 

For instance, whenever I see Singapore vermicelli on a menu, I feel compelled to order it.  This dish hasn’t always been on Mekong’s menu (an outdated version is here), but boy can they nail it!  And, like a lot of other Thai restaurants, you can regulate the amount of heat infused in each dish … I tend to order medium heat here and add a bit of hot sauce on my own when warranted. 

The signature dish here, though, in my opinion, is the Laotian curry beef noodles.  This curry does taste just a bit different than, say, a Thai or Vietnamese curry, and I think it delivers just a subtle sweetness to the beef.  Combine that with the sweet-and-sour of the sauce, the chopped peanuts and the cool crispness of the vegetables (including cucumber, bean sprouts, shredded carrot and cilantro), and I think you have one of the best dishes served in any Asian restaurant in town. 

The Laotian beef eventually won Punky over, and Mekong Café has been a favorite lunch spot for us ever since.  Yes, the service can be spotty at its busiest times, which means your appetizer may show up with your meal, but everything I’ve tried here has been excellent (tip:  try the Vietnamese eggrolls and pour the extra peanut sauce on your entree!).  Now, if I can only convince Punky to try something else on the menu …

1 comment:

Erin said...

I haven't been here in a long time...your post makes me want to remedy that!

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