Mekong River

By Phyllis Stein-Novack
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 29 | Posted Jul. 12, 2012

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Mekong River, a Pennsport-based Vietnamese restaurant, provides a casual, family-oriented environment.

Photo by Greg Bezanis

“I thought it was a green bean," my husband Edward said as his face turned red and he broke out into a sweat. He ate some rice, drank a glass of water and applied a cold, wet napkin to his face and neck.

The alleged green bean turned out to be a very hot pepper that added flavor to the barbecue spare ribs we were eating at Mekong River, a new Vietnamese restaurant in Pennsport.

We spotted the place a few weeks ago. Since Vietnamese fare is my favorite Asian cuisine, I had to try it.

Mekong River, a BYOB with a pending liquor license, is a bright, open, airy place with a long bar, comfortable, roomy black leather booths and a staff that will answer all menu-item questions.

We brought a Kendall Jackson sauvignon blanc, which complements Asian fare. Our server placed it in an ice bucket, brought wine glasses and poured us a sip.

The menu is overwhelming. I see no reason to list about 150 items.

Cha Gio ($3.25) consisted of two crispy spring rolls filled with shredded vegetables and a fish sauce for dipping. They were a little greasy but had a nice flavor. Some pickled turnips, carrots and bright green iceberg lettuce leaves came with the dish. The Goi Cuon ($3.50) did not disappoint. These cool, summer rolls were plump and filled with shrimp, cilantro and pork. The heady peanut dipping sauce was a fine contrast to the mild rolls, which are among my favorite Vietnamese appetizers.

Banh Xeo ($7.95) however was disappointing. I have eaten the classic shrimp-filled Vietnamese crepe in many restaurants in the city and beyond. The menu states it is a “Vietnamese crispy crepe with shrimp and pork.” It tasted more like a thin, slightly greasy omelet, it was much too eggy and there were two tiny shrimp inside and very little pork. All I could taste were tasteless bean sprouts and shredded vegetables. The appetizer came with mounds of fresh mint, lettuce leaves, pickled turnips and carrots.

“You wrap the crepe in a lettuce leaf,” our waiter said.

We tried it. It was too difficult to eat, so we nixed this method. Since we barely made a dent in the herbs and lettuce mix, we toted it home.

Although it was 98 degrees outside, we settled on Sup Mang Cua ($7.50), asparagus soup for two. I asked our waiter whether the crabmeat was real or fake. He assured us it was the real thing.

The soup looked like egg drop soup. It was piping hot and prepared with ghastly, canned white asparagus that turned to a flavorless mush. We could not see or taste the crabmeat. There were bits of chewy pink and white pieces of fish, which our waiter said were shrimp, floating about.

If we were disappointed with the soup, we were truly disappointed with Do Bien Xao Lan ($13.50), a dreadful mix of tiny overcooked shrimp; tiny pieces of rubbery squid; a few thin slices of scallops; fish balls, which we did not detect; and two overcooked, off-colored mussels in half of a green shell. These were frozen mussels and since they had the consistency of concrete, I told Edward not to eat them. The coconut curry sauce with lemongrass did nothing to redeem this horrendous dish.

The aforementioned hot pepper moment came about after a few tastes of Thit Kho To ($8.95) an individual cast-iron kettle filled with braised bite-sized pieces of pork rib on the bone. One look at the dish and I knew Edward would not care for it too much. The ribs were not meaty and the best way to eat them was with the hands, a method Edward detests. The flavor of the sauce, however, was pretty good. Large mounds of perfectly steamed rice came with both entrees.

The test of a restaurant is “does the food taste good?” Are the ingredients immaculately fresh? Unfortunately, Mekong River failed below average.

One-half tip of the toque to Mekong River.

Mekong River

1120 S. Front St.


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Comments 1 - 29 of 29
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1. Crexac said... on Jul 12, 2012 at 10:35AM

“Well ok now! this is more along the lines of a helpful review- descriptions about the quality and quantity of the food beyond what the menu would tell you.”

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2. Maureen said... on Jul 12, 2012 at 10:42AM

“I agree with Crexac - and the restaurant is actually in South Philadelphia!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jul 12, 2012 at 01:34PM

“We had a very nice meal about a month ago at Mekong River. Our family of five was welcomed and staff was very attentive.
The food was fresh and well prepared with more than ample portions.
The reviewer and I appear to have been at two different restaurants.

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4. Vans Garden Remembered said... on Jul 13, 2012 at 09:23AM

“I remember going to van's garden in the late 80's and being the only white person there and the menus were still in Vietnamese, then the hipsters came and screwed it all up. I wonder if the food critic ever eaten there...I bet not.”

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5. Phyllis Stein-Novack said... on Jul 13, 2012 at 03:22PM

“Vans Garden does not ring a bell but during the 80s I was a regular at the Tran family's restaurant in South Philly. The family had just arrived in America and my experiences there form the basis for my love of Vietnamese fare and the correct way it should be prepared. I can't remember the name of the restaurant but I will find out from a friend or it will keep me up all night. It was one of the first restaurants I reviewed when I became restaurant critic of the paper. Actually, I think the Tran family arrived in the late 70s but opened the restaurant in the 80s because we were guests at their 25th anniversary dinner in the late 90s. Come to think of may have been called Tran. I miss it madly.”

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6. 4th St. said... on Jul 14, 2012 at 10:09AM

“Are you kidding me!?!? I was there on opening night and have been back several times since. The food there is some of the best Vietnamese in the area. The decor is fresh and clean. The food exemplifies some of the traditional Vietnamese dishes, while also introducing some new items to their menu. The service is some of the best around. In a town where customer service is closer compared to contempt, the servers at Mekong are friendly, funny, and helpful. I think that Phyllis Stien-Novack and her husband???? should stop bashing new business' IN South Philly, to whom this paper serves and quite frankly the quality of this review and the items she and her opinionated husband sampled were quite amateur.
If my opinion counts for anything as a patron of South Philadelphia dinning establishments counts for anything I give Mekong River, the start-up Vietnamese Restaurant on Front and Wharton 3 1/2 Tuch's”

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7. ? said... on Jul 14, 2012 at 11:43AM

“Perhaps if you can't tell the difference between a string bean and a hot PEPPER you shouldn't be a food critic.”

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8. Skeptic said... on Jul 14, 2012 at 02:33PM

“I wish there were some way to prevent shills like posts number 6 & 7 from coming on here. Yes, it's human to resent negative criticism and I realize a business could fail from such a review, but I thought Phyllis was honest and straightforward.

Go back and fix the problems she noted, and then come on here with your real name and connection to the restaurant, admit the shortcoming, explain how you have corrected it, and ask for our business. If you don't have the integrity to acknowledge your flaws or admit who you are, then I won't set foot in your place.”

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9. Mike Miller said... on Jul 14, 2012 at 04:59PM

“Make assumption much Skeptic? I don't get the same impression when reading these comments until I get to your comment. You sound like a shill for this site/Phyllis? Post with your real name and real connection to this site and we'll see. See what I did there?

If you read past reviews, you'd see the same same things in the comment section. It's nothing new. This site is not moderated and plus It's the internet get over it!”

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10. Skeptic said... on Jul 14, 2012 at 09:01PM

“So I was right. You don't deny your close connection to Mekong River. Ha ha! Your time would be better spent finding some real crab meat for that soup than typing bogus letters here. Ha ha.”

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11. 19147 said... on Jul 15, 2012 at 08:49AM

“"All I could taste were tasteless bean sprouts"....say what?

I am a huge fan of Vietnamese food. I frequent Nam Phoung, Pho 75, and Pho Ha, depending on what I'm in the mood for. I've been to Mekong River a few times. I have had excellent experiences there. I find the service to be far friendlier that most of the more tenured spots. The food has been very good from what I've tried so far. Most Vietnamese restaurants have very large menus. Unless they concentrate on a certain type of food, like Pho 75.

I do find it interesting, as #7 states, that a food critic can't decipher between a green been and a hot pepper. It is also strange that "Edward" would order ribs when he "detests" eating with his hands.”

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12. Edward said... on Jul 15, 2012 at 09:14AM

“I resemble that remark!”

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13. barryg said... on Jul 16, 2012 at 12:14PM

“Why would Edward order spare ribs if he hates eating with his hands? Weird.

Otherwise this is the best PSN review in a while. A place with 100 items on the menu can't do everything well.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Jul 16, 2012 at 01:53PM

“It's not weird. You're talking about eating food. Edward is talking about eating something else.”

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15. Anonymous said... on Jul 16, 2012 at 03:18PM

“I actually get a kick out of Phyllis' reviews because often they are terrible. One that I clearly remember was about a pizza with fresh arugula on top--not sure if she understood or thought it was basil, but she was shocked to see raw arugula on pizza. If you go to Italy one of my favorite pizzas has fresh arugula on top. This review was a few years ago but I remember thinking how out of touch the reviewer was--I am not sure how this person got this gig since she doesn't seem to know that much. Clearly we are talking about a local small paper. not like she's writing for the NY times. The paper is paying her or for her meal--so she should get some things right.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Jul 16, 2012 at 03:24PM

“For fun read some of the older reviews. Read the Nomad Pizza and you can see others that think she should retire. She said she's a journalist but I don't know about that. I'm sure she's a lovely person and she isn't hurting anyone but she's out of touch!!”

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17. Thrill Seeker said... on Jul 16, 2012 at 04:04PM

“That's exactly what this column is, Anonymous #16: FUN. If Phyllis went on vacation for two weeks (she never seems to take a vacation...hmm) we serious types would miss her dearly. For all their failings, her cast of characters are comic relief in our frenzied lives. I can't wait each week to see what some wise guy has to say about Edward's drinking. My eyes get great exercise on Thursdays as they roll upward in response to another tale about Sandy's insularity. And then there's Phyllis' affairs of the heart: will she or won't she desert Edward for the charming Cousin Carl?

Find me anything else worth wasting time on in the SPR. Well, maybe the crime report...”

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18. 19147 said... on Jul 17, 2012 at 07:17AM

“#12 Edward, LMAO.

#16? Not hurting anyone? I find this to be a scathing review of a new establishment in our area that may keep people from going there. While I think that the review should be honest, I find it troubling that it seems inconsistent with what most people, who have eaten there, think of the place. From friends, family, comments here, and other message boards, the reviews all seem positive.

This review seems out of touch with the cuisine. Is Nam Phoung's (a long time favorite of mine) menu too large as well? I think the menus are very similar. That's just what a full menu looks like at a Vietnamese restaurant.”

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19. Phyllis Stein-Novack said... on Jul 17, 2012 at 07:35AM

“I do take vacations. When I do, I stock-pile my reviews and food features.

A review is an opinion. For example, I loves to go to the movies. I read A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times. I use his opinion as a guide. I Tweet. Gael Green tweeted that Woody Allen's new film is a "mess of a movie." This would not deter me from seeing it. I intend to do so.

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20. Peter said... on Jul 19, 2012 at 01:26PM

“A review is an opinion and not a biography or political affiliation. Who cares about her political affiliations or personal life. Her review also is horrible. A great restaurant and one of the few who have a friendly interactive staff. Edward needs a better command of the English language when he says: “I resemble that remark!” Did Edward eat the ribs even though he detested how ribs are eaten!”

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21. almost 11 y/o south philly guy said... on Jul 19, 2012 at 06:26PM

“really... the mekong river review is horrible.right after they opened my family of five went there and the waiters were really nice. My grandma spilled beer on my grand pop and they immediately swooped in and helped. The food is delicious.”

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22. 7 y/o Sign climber said... on Jul 19, 2012 at 06:29PM

“My family and I ate at Mekong River and I had meatball soup. The meatballs were nice, and fresh, and good, like right out of the oven and the noodles were good. I very much liked Mekong River.”

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23. Mekong River said... on Jul 20, 2012 at 04:06PM

“Who orders ribs and expects to eat them with a knife and fork? Stick up your ass much? Oh, but you dont know the difference between a green bean and pepper?

Anyone who takes this review as being legitimate without first handedly experiencing the wonderful service, beautiful decor, delicious food and resonable prices themselves is a fool. I love Mekong River”

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24. Pennsport Neighbor said... on Jul 22, 2012 at 08:18AM

“Having read many of Phyllis's reviews, I decided to try an experiment to see if there is validity to her reviews. My family and I recently dined at Mekong River. First impressions of the restaurant are- clean, simple and sophisticated decor, and friendly staff. I ordered the banh xeo. The crepe arrived with a separate plate of vegetables. It was crispy and contained plenty of shrimp and pork. Although this was kind of messy, I wrapped the crepe in lettuce with mint, basil and pickled carrots and turnips and dipped the 'lettuce roll' in the sauce. The flavor profile was balanced, and it tasted so fresh! I didn't think it was 'eggy' at all so I asked the waiter if the crepe is made with eggs. It's not made with any eggs, but instead a flour mixture. People assume it's made with eggs because of the yellow color. A food review is an opinion. I'm glad I didn't let your opinion stop me from trying MKR. I had a good experience similar to the other commentators.”

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25. It was ok... said... on Jul 26, 2012 at 01:32AM

“Went there with my GF. The food (entree) and service was average. The crepe wasn't, not enough pork. Nothing special except the decor was a upgrade from the current Viet huong. I know it's the same owner, but we like the current viet huong better.”

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26. Jane Jann said... on Jul 26, 2012 at 01:23PM

“Isn't it interesting that in today's Inquirer (7/26/12) Craig LaBan writes a brief review of Mekong River and makes comments such as "The crispy noodles are irresistible, the pho is spot-on and the dry noodles with seafood and special sauce are a crowd favorite." He also rec the chile and fresh-mint-dusted Viet chicken wings.
So glad to read such a great review and that so many more readers will learn about the real Mekong River”

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27. Lorraine Gatti said... on Feb 18, 2013 at 09:51PM

“I suggest you re-visit this place. Because of your horrible review of Mekong River, I deliberately stayed away. Finally, about 3 months ago my friend Trang and I decided to give it a go. Boy, Phyllis - you were way off-base on this one. Mekong is one of the best Vietnamese restaurants I've been to in years, and next to Italian is my favorite food. The Pho is my gauge on greatness and this one doesn't miss. The appetizers are wonderful, the lemonade (lime, to us) is my personal favorite, and the atmosphere and seating, while vastly different from most Vietnamese restaurants is very comfortable and inviting.

Oh, and I'm no "shill", I just love this restaurant and really really think you should go back and try it again!”

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28. Lorraine Gatti said... on Feb 18, 2013 at 09:59PM

“I suggest you re-visit this place. Because of your horrible review of Mekong River, I deliberately stayed away.(ok, that was my fault I realize) Finally, about 3 months ago my friend Trang and I decided to give it a go. Boy, Phyllis - you were way off-base on this one. Mekong is one of the best Vietnamese restaurants I've been to in years, and next to Italian is my favorite food. The Pho is my gauge on greatness and this one doesn't miss. The appetizers are wonderful, the lemonade (lime, to us) is my personal favorite, the atmosphere and seating, while vastly different from most Vietnamese restaurants is very comfortable and inviting.

Oh, and I'm no "shill", I just love this restaurant and really really think you should go back and try it again!”

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29. Anonymous said... on Apr 29, 2013 at 08:45AM

“Just are here this past Friday (4/26/13) with my son.
We both loved it! The food is delicious. We had the potato cupcakes stuffed with shrimp....awesome! We ordered the Pho soup, again awesome! I had crispy noodles with seafood. It was delicious.
This place is awesome, do not go by this review, she hates every restaurant and find something wrong, go on the internet and put in Reviews of Mekong river, everyone loves it!!!!! They need a new food critic...she drinks to much and is too old.”


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