Eating Out: Mekong has captured the excitement of south-east Asian street food
7-8 Magazine Street
THE Mekong River rises on the Tibetan Plateau and flows for just over 2,700 miles through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, before it meets the South China Sea.
The Mekong in Derry has travelled a much shorter distance – just 2,698 miles fewer, give or take – and the route has been just a little less exotic. Some journeys require more than simple Imperial measurements, though, and there’s much more than two miles to the Mekong’s story.
When I first tried the Mekong, last year, it was operating out of a street food truck, banished to the scarred tarmac and grimy pavements of a cul-de-sac on the Springtown Industrial Estate. The food came in squeaking polystyrene boxes and you shovelled it into your mouth with plastic forks, standing out in the cold or, if you were very posh, sitting in your car.
It was lovely, no doubt about that, but it was limited. The truck might as well have been on bricks because the food wasn’t going any further.
The chefs needed a proper kitchen to show what they could do, in premises which allowed them to develop a loyal, appreciative following. Well, they now have that proper kitchen, they are showing what they can do, and, I imagine, that loyal, appreciative following is growing by the day.
The new location couldn’t be much better – bang in the heart of the city and, being within the Nerve Centre complex, with easy access to the audiences turning up for the concerts, screenings, and other events taking place there.
If the furnishings and film posters still suggest an arts centre café, the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling show a gradual style makeover. Anyway, once the food arrives, no-one is going to be looking at the décor, and nor is this simply a handy place to get a quick bite to eat before the film starts.
The food is absolutely terrific. The street food ethos which drove the Springtown truck is still very much in evidence, but it’s now done with greater flair and refinement, and a deftness of touch. It’s bold and punchy, but nuanced, too.
The menu (it’s cash only, by the way, before I forget) is confidently brief – five starters, five mains, no desserts – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to choose. I’m not allowed to eat chicken wings in public, as the sauce that inevitably ends up all over my face makes me look like a vampire just before sunrise, so they were out.
We went instead for the rice paper rolls. These were lovely, slightly sticky, transparent tubes packed with tender beef and crunchy vegetables, alongside a dish of sweet and salty dipping sauce.
We also had the crab and papaya salad, which I loved. The crab was sweet and subtle, the papaya was creamy and mild, and the salad carried a real hit of chilli heat, which lulled you into thinking all was well before hitting you like a truck. Make sure you order a jug of iced water before you take the first bite.
The noodles in the Phad Thai were very well cooked, just the right combination of firm and soft. If I’m being picky, I’d say it could have come with more chicken and pork, but what was there was moist and succulent and nicely seasoned. The prawns were beautifully done – juicy, sweet, and chunky fellers, with bags of flavour. The crispy noodle topping was a clever touch.
The pork belly was a bit of a triumph. Again, the meat was perfectly cooked, the strips of pork pulling away with no bother at all. The salad gave intensity and warmth from the ginger and chilli, and there were those lovely king prawns again to complement the pork.
As a much (much!) younger man, I worked and travelled around south-east Asia – Hong Kong, China, Thailand, and elsewhere. Street food was my daily diet. Mekong has captured the excitement of the food there. Such a range of textures and flavours. So many fresh, vibrant ingredients. Mekong is authentic, bold, clever, and delicious.
Burtonport crab and green papaya salad with chilli and basil £6
Spicy beef rice paper rolls, nuoc mam cham £5
Phad Thai, with pork, chicken, and crispy king prawns £13
Confit pork belly, ginger and chilli king prawns, green papaya salad £15
Child’s portion of noodles and chicken £4