FUNKY FRESH: Mekong River’s chicken salad delivers on salty, sweet, sour and pungent fronts.
Once in a while, a dish comes along that defines a season. For me, summer 2012 will always and forever be the Summer of the Mekong River Chicken Salad.
This traditional Vietnamese starter, soaked in a sweet, clear lime-and-chili dressing pricked with fish sauce, is refreshment incarnate, a canvas of cool poached chicken stormed with crushed peanuts, crispy chicken skin, frizzled garlic, piquant pickled onions, carrot and daikon, with assorted roughage (snappy red cabbage, fragrant Thai basil, soapy Vietnamese coriander) speckling the salad like fuchsia-and-emerald confetti.
I’ve eaten it five or six times since Mekong opened on Front near Federal in June. I’ve consumed it in the restaurant, a suburban-sleek den of leather, brick and stone. I’ve consumed it on my couch in boxers and socks. And in turn, it has consumed me, a jumble of sweet, salty, funky and fresh inscribed on my brain as permanently as a prison tattoo.
The chicken salad’s numerical moniker is No. 116 on the encyclopedic menu, should you be prompted by one of the welcoming and pathologically cheery waiters. Standing at 173 items (not counting the sprightly limeades and honeydew smoothies that unfailingly arrived halfway through my meals here), Mekong’s menu is nearly as long as the Yoo-Hoo-hued river for which it’s named, and navigating can be as murky. Let me help.
Avoid anything that sounds like something you might also find at a Chinese take-out joint (incidentally, this is good advice for dining at any Vietnamese restaurant). These obligatory duds, like chicken and chunky veggies smothered in a weak ginger-onion gravy, lurk in the list like paunchy manatees — endearingly dopey, but disruptive all the same. Try the pho; Mekong’s eye-round, flank-and-tendon trio was neither the best nor the worst I’ve had, though the big bowl is way closer to the former than the latter. Summer rolls are a must, rolled as tightly as a sushi master’s maki with shrimp, pork and Asian herbs.
Mekong handles beef particularly well, whether in pho, sautéed with lemongrass for a nest of vermicelli or spiced, ground and bound in grape leaves for the bo nuong la, a starter of eight little green umami grenades. The cooks should give the briny leaves a more thorough rinse, though; their bitter salinity nearly muscled the beef out of the frame.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I could come to Mekong River and eat the chicken salad and nothing else. That’s not to damn the rest of the dishes, but to extoll the excellence of this one. Flavor-charged, supremely satisfying and filling in a healthful way, gi gà ti has defined my summer. Chances are it’ll define my fall as well.