There is the Super H Mart, a huge grocery chock full of Korean, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese products as well as fresh meats and fish and tons of produce.
Several restaurants and shops on both corners with signs in both English and Asian characters offer food favorites from the far side of the globe.
One of these is Le Mekong. It is 30 minutes from my office and almost an hour from my house, but to me, it’s worth every minute in traffic to get here.
I discovered Vietnamese food only a few years ago. Because its emphasis is on fresh herbs and vegetables, an exotic array of spices and moderate amounts of meats or seafood with very little added fat, it is one of the very few cuisines that I find intensely satisfying yet light enough to leave me full and content without feeling stuffed.
Le Mekong owner and executive chef Tham Huynh jokes that the small village he grew up in was so far south in Vietnam it was practically in the ocean. He moved to America when he was 15, bringing with him a love of cooking. Though Huynh’s background is in applied engineering, he worked in restaurants part time during his college years and beyond, with experience mostly in Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese cuisine.
When the economy went sour and Huynh found himself without engineering work, he took a huge gamble and opened Le Mekong using recipes he developed himself based on memories of the traditional cooking of his childhood. His life partner, Khanh Nguyen, who came to the U.S. 12 years ago, is the restaurant manager.
Since they are both from the south of Vietnam, the majority of Le Mekong’s dishes are from that region. Emblematic dishes on the menu include caramelized fish in clay pot, sour fish soup with pineapple, celery, tomatoes and okra, marinated grilled pork and shrimp with vermicelli noodles and fried whole fish with ginger sauce.
Pho (pronounced “fuh”) is among the best known Vietnamese dishes to Americans. A blend of Vietnamese rice noodles and a meat broth, it is served with rice noodles and various meats, usually beef or chicken, with bean sprouts, lime wedges, sliced jalapenos and Thai basil, mint and cilantro on the side for the diner to add to taste.
The quality of the broth is the difference between an excellent pho and one that is just adequate. Not every Vietnamese cook will roast the beef bones that are the basis for the broth, but Huynh does just that to coax out a deep flavor. He adds 11 herbs and spices and simmers the broth for up to 10 hours, giving it rich complexity.
It is also the base for more than a half dozen other noodle soups on the menu, such as a wonderful egg noodle soup with sliced barbecue pork.
There are seafood, meat, poultry and vegetarian options for stir fries, noodle and rice dishes. Everything is cooked to order and comes to the table as fresh as it could possibly be. The chilled elements, such as a salad of bean sprouts, slivered cucumber, chopped Thai basil and mint, or a mix of pickled daikon radish and carrots, are meant to be eaten in tandem with the hot entrée to add a refreshing note and a nice crunch to each bite of food.
Vietnamese cuisine is all about that kind of balance of textures and flavors. Each element is carefully chosen and utilized in a dish to harmonize as a whole. Huynh has a talent for getting the most out of his ingredients and ensuring that the finished product sings with flavor without disagreeably overwhelming the taste buds with a knockout punch.
Two of the dishes that I tried perfectly illustrate that ability. One, steamed rice rolls filled with shrimp and wood ear mushrooms, was delicate yet flavorful.
Accompanied by a sausage-like pork paste made in house and a mildly sweet and acidic dipping sauce, the overall effect hit exactly the right notes to become a go-to dish for me.
The second was lemongrass chicken, prepared in the traditional Vietnamese manner with plenty of scallions and yellow onion, crushed lemongrass and subtly assertive seasoning that surprised and delighted me. Spicy without being really hot, it was delicious.
The menu version of this dish is a bit more Westernized — snow peas sub for some of the onions, for example — but as with all of his food, Huynh will make the traditional version if it is requested.
Le Mekong’s interior is tastefully done in pale yellow, slate blue, cherry woods and linen cloths. A water wall between the beer and wine bar and the main dining area adds to the tranquil and comfortable ambiance.
A closer look:
10900 Medlock Bridge Road