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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mekong Cafe - Eureka, California

I am thrilled to introduce you to my good friend, Steve DeGenaro, who is probably the only person I know that loves food more than me.  Not only is Steve a gourmand, but also an outstanding home chef who can cook his way around a kitchen like nobody's business specializing in local ethnic favorites.  Steve's job takes him all over the United States where he gets to sample the best of the best that this great country has to offer.  I am so happy he has agreed from time to time to provide reviews of some of his favorite places so people like me, who are willing to travel for a meal, know where to point the plane.  I hope you enjoy his comments as much as me.

by Steve DeGenaro

Eureka California is at the end of the world—a few miles short of the place where you fall off into oblivion. It’s located 250 miles north of Sacramento, along a rugged, windswept coastline. The town is “quasi-industrial”—fishing industry and logging redwoods, both of which are becoming like buggy-whip manufacturing. The town is “edgy”—some would say “seedy”-- with a large homeless population. Oh, and did I mention that it is always wet and cold there, usually like San Francisco but chillier. I’ve left home and heat (90 degrees) and its 45 here at night, edging up close to 70 on “hot” days and low 60’s most of the summer.

I’ve come to Eureka for work, something that happens about once a year for me. There are places I look forward to working in more (Maui comes to mind) and places that I look forward to less (Nebraska—except Lincoln, Missouri, the big cities in Texas). This place WAS somewhere in between.

But there are little patches of beautiful countryside along the way. You get there by driving up through the heart of California Wine Country (if you come from the south) and through Mt. Shasta Forest/Trinity Lake (if you come from the north). And for some inexplicable reason, there are many excellent restaurants in this little corner of the world. Rarely does a restaurant alone change my perception of a town, but in this case, Eureka is now officially on my bucket list as a place I need to bring my wife to. All because of a restaurant!

MEKONG CAFÉ, a small locally owned Asian restaurant that serves outstanding home cooked Laotian dishes along with some Thai and Vietnamese standards, is certainly that kind of a restaurant. I found this little gem on an annual work trip and ended up eating three meals in two days at the establishment.

MEKONG CAFÉ is owned by Gina and John Sydathong. He’s a Laotian immigrant and she’s a local girl who grew up “on meat and potatoes” in the area. She went to culinary school and decided to introduce the area to a brand new cuisine. And by “introduce”, I mean “take the area by storm”!

Now, Laotian food is different. Think of a weird amalgamation of Indian food, Middle Eastern spices, and Asian preparation. There are noodle dishes, rice dishes, and stir-fry. Select the protein (fish, chicken, beef, tofu), select the sauce (Lime, Lemongrass, Galanga, Ginger, Garlic), tell ‘em which veggies you like and which you don’t like—and let Gina do the rest!

Disclaimer: Thai and Vietnamese are my favorite cuisines---I can’t get enough of them. I know the intricacies of each country’s unique regions and have even eaten in Tibetan restaurants. But Mekong Café was special.

Try the pad thai. Ordering this noodle dish is like ordering “spaghetti” in an Italian restaurant. Everybody’s take on it is slightly different. The sauce is made with tamarind, sweetened with sugar, savoried up with salt, and stirred into the noodles with lime and garlic sauces. Gina explained to me during my visit that most of the pad thai in the US is much sweeter than what you’d find in Thailand. I can’t verify that since I’ve never been to Thailand, but Gina’s take on this classic dish was intense, aromatic, and had barely a hint of sweetness. Tamarind has a wonderful fruity quality that I had never noticed before because of all the sugar in the dish in other restaurants.

Try the stir-fry with galanga. I don’t know what galanga looks like growing, but in cooking, it appears to be fibrous and sometimes woody, like bamboo. The taste is unbelievable---it’s the pop rock candy of the spice world. Hints of lime, mint, and cilantro vie for your attention as you eat this stir-fry and the spices almost explode in your mouth as you eat it.

Speaking of mint and cilantro, try the fresh rolls. For anyone in NE Ohio that hasn’t had these, PHO SAIGAN in Boardman has a pretty good version. These are essentially egg rolls that haven’t been deep-fried. Instead of scorched vegetable oil and MSG, you bite into these to taste fresh veggies like lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, and mushroom strips along with shrimp (cooked but room temperature) and the leafy spices cilantro and mint. Gina had some cooked duck breasts she was using the day I ate there and made them with cold duck meat instead of shrimp. Sweet and sour dipping sauce is homemade from scratch and makes these delicacies perfect.

Try the pho. This Vietnamese soup can be beef broth or chicken broth. It’s served with chicken or beef, rice noodles, hot peppers, bean sprouts, and fresh mint. You garnish the hot soup with mint and cilantro, squeeze some lime wedges into the soup and enjoy! The spice combination fairly explodes—an interesting medley of tastes. One bite is hot pepper, one is lime, one is fresh cilantro.

Dessert is thai custard, or papaya with honey, or coconut ice cream. Coffee is iced, strong, and creamy.

Service: well, it’s like to going to someone’s home that really cares about you. Their daughter—maybe 12 years old—waits tables alongside some of the family’s cousins. Gina comes out and talks to everyone and is happy to talk about recipes, give an amateur chef like me some hints to take home, and generally make the place feel warm. My third meal there, I met John, who is shy compared to his gregarious wife. He likes to shake hands and smile a lot and gets credit for bringing these recipes from his native Laos.

Cool fog rolls into town from the Bay and along the damp streets of “Old Town”, where the restaurant is located. Past a well-worn wharf, largely unused. Past vacant warehouses. Past neighborhoods trying to become gentrified, bookstores, coffee shops. Up to 2nd street, and along restaurant row where a bunch of seafood restaurants and one Italian place line the street. Pass them up and go into Mekong Café for a meal that you will not soon forget.

307 2nd Street
Eureka, California

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