Mekong Fresh Noodle and Grill recently debuted at the Meridian Marketplace kitty-corner from Meridian Speedway.
Here, diners can take a culinary tour of Southeast Asia with a small menu of regional specialties.
The bright but diminutive dining room boasts large photos of Mekong River scenes and a turquoise paint job, not to mention plenty of booths for enjoying noodles, grilled meats and stir-fried dishes.
But before we get to the food, a brief geography lesson.
The Mekong River runs down the Indochina peninsula, dividing that part of Southeast Asia. Along the way, the river flows through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia on its way to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, and eventually courses into the South China Sea.
The Mekong is the lifeblood for those who live near its edge, and big catfish and other freshwater fish are the catch of the day up and down the river.
Mekong Fresh, owned by Aaron and Lottie Boutsomsi, a friendly Laotian couple who moved here from Anchorage, Alaska, draws inspiration from the river and its surrounding environs.
Expect to find Laotian dishes such as mok pa ($9/lunch), a traditional dish of catfish wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed in a ramekin with thick sticky rice water, lemongrass and scallion (think of it as fish brulee). It’s served with an ornate basket of steamed Laotian sticky rice and a vinegary sauce pocked with sliced chilies and garlic.
It’s worth noting that some assembly is required when eating food from Indochina. Granted, this is incredibly fun and tasty work.
For instance, pun nem noung ($12/lunch) is a large platter colorfully arranged with ground pork skewers, iceberg lettuce cups, vermicelli rice noodles, pickled carrot and daikon radish and verdant sprigs of cilantro, mint and purple-stemmed basil. Imagine the best grilled spam ever (with lots of garlic) situated next to all these fresh offerings, served with gingery hoisin and a sweet chili-vinegar dipping sauce. It comes with a large bowl of hot water and paper-thin sheets of rice paper. All diners have to do is drop the crisp sheets (one at a time) into the water and quickly pull them out when they become soft, then get to work wrapping.
Other grilled Laotian offerings include smoky tasting chicken thigh skewers ($13/dinner) linked with zucchini, onion, mushroom, bell pepper and toothsome pieces of pineapple. The interplay of sweet and spicy (thanks to a piquant fish sauce marinade and the incredibly ripe fruit) really shines through on this traditional dish.
The grilled pork spare ribs ($14/dinner) were a little on the tough side, yet a pronounced marinade made everything all right, as did the accompaniment of lightly charred veggies and chili-pepper-spiked golden fish sauce.
All grilled items come with super-sticky Laotian rice meant to be eaten with fingers not forks. Diners also can get steamed jasmine rice.
Mekong Fresh dishes up two kinds of green papaya salad. The Laotian version ($8) is the real deal. But some folks might find this tangle of shredded, crunchy green papaya (mingled with tomato and pepper in a tangy fermented anchovy sauce) to be too fishy tasting for their liking.
The restaurant also offers a Thai-style green papaya salad with a toned-down sauce.
Vietnamese offerings include rather expensive pho ($11/combo), a large bowl of star anise-tinged beef stock riddled with silky rice noodles, sliced brisket (quickly fading from pink to brown in the hot broth), sliced beef meatballs, tendon and chopped scallion. It comes with a side plate brimming with fresh basil and mint, lettuce, sliced jalapeno, lime wedges and crunchy bean sprouts, which diners can add to the steaming soup at will.
Looking to take the spice level up a notch? Each table has two glass jars of brick-red sambal (one more fiery than the other) and a squirt bottle of ubiquitous Sriracha sauce.
Mekong Fresh serves a decent banh mi sandwich ($7) at lunch. A puffy French roll gets split and smeared with a peppery cream sauce, then on go layers of thinly sliced pate, swirled cured meats of the pork variety, jalapeno, cilantro and pickled carrot and daikon radish.
A few standard appetizers and noodle dishes point in the direction of Thailand. A vegetarian lad na ($10) represents Siam well with its wide rice noodles stir-fried in a light gravy with chunks of roasted garlic, bok choy, asparagus, broccoli and sliced yellow onion, but it was missing the promised egg curds during one visit.
The menu may not be large at Mekong Fresh, but the food is as authentic as it gets around these parts, especially the Laotian fare.
Statesman reviewers pay for their meals and attempt to dine anonymously. Email James Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mekong Fresh Noodle and Grill
Address: 520 S. Meridian Road, Meridian
Phone: (208) 908-6191
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday
Menu price range: appetizers $4-$9; noodles, stir-fried dishes and entrées $8-$16.
Libation situation: Diners will have to wait to wash everything down with a bottle of rice lager until the restaurant gets its beer and wine license, which is planned for a later date. For now, try a tropical fruit smoothie or a glass of iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
Kid friendly? Yes
Wheelchair accessible? Yes
Opened: October 2015