My wife and I have been spreading our culinary wings in terms of trying more Vietnamese cuisine since we went on a guided tour of SE Asian restaurants in Chicago last fall. (Click here to see that entry.) It turns out that we have a longtime upscale Vietnamese restaurant in our own backyard - Le Mekong. On a date night awhile back, we went over to Moline and had dinner at Le Mekong.
As it says in the logo on the left, Le Mekong has been in existence since 1985. But it was a long and treacherous route that founder Thom Van Pham took to open the restaurant over 30 years ago.
Pham, his wife and three children were living in Saigon during the height of the Vietnam War. He was working as an executive for a company that sold diesel engines and was also an importer for John Deere products. When North Vietnamese troops started to get closer to Saigon in April of 1975, Pham felt it was time to get his family out of the country. As they were waiting for a bus to take them to the airport, an artillery attack from North Vietnamese troops destroyed the terminal and airstrips at the main airport. The siege of Saigon had begun and Pham was forced to turn around and go back home with his family.
Watching the North Vietnamese army enter the city from his third floor office a couple three days later, he knew that the end of the Vietnam War also meant a "re-education" of the citizens of South Vietnam into Communist ideologies. Knowing that was not the path in life he wanted to take, he decided that he needed to escape the country. But he also knew that he couldn't take his family with him.
Two years after the fall of Saigon, Pham and his oldest daughter set out on a small fishing boat leaving his wife and two other children behind. It was a harrowing trip over 12 days traversing the seas with only a small compass to keep them on course. They finally ended up in Singapore before moving on to Paris. In 1978, Pham's wife and their two other children made their way to Paris to meet up with the rest of the family.
Pham still had friends back in the Quad Cities that he used to work with at John Deere and a number of co-workers went in and helped pay for the Pham family to come to the U.S. and live. They settled in the Quad Cities where Pham started to work for John Deere International, as well as running his own import/export business. Living in the Quad Cities for a few years, Pham saw that there was a need for a Vietnamese restaurant in the area.
With his wife as the head cook of the restaurant, Le Mekong opened in 1985 as the very first Vietnamese restaurant in the Quad Cities. It was a small place - it only sat 50 people - until the Pham's were able to take over a building next door to the restaurant and after a renovation to the space they added an additional 70 seats to the restaurant. In 2001, they made another renovation to the building, adding more space and more seats and today Le Mekong comfortably sits over 200 people, including a space for receptions and large dinners.
By 2007, Thom Van Pham was well into his 60's and he felt that he couldn't keep up with the restaurant any longer. The 16 hour days, 7 days a week were taking a toll on him. His son, Tony, was planning on going to college to get a degree in business, so he didn't want to take it over from his father. The Pham family ended up selling the restaurant to a distant relative who ran a small eatery in a food court of a local mall. They rented the space to the relative and continued to live above the restaurant.
When the recession hit in 2008, business at Le Mekong went south. The quality of the food suffered during the time the relative was running the business and it was obvious that it wasn't the same without Thom Van Pham at the helm. Le Mekong ended up closing in January 2012 when the relative couldn't make a go of the place.
Tony Pham was now out of college and back home. He knew that he had to resurrect Le Mekong from the ashes, bring back he same quality of food and service that his father started nearly 30 years before. After an extensive and lengthy remodeling of both the interior and the exterior of the restaurant, Tony Pham reopened Le Mekong with the help of his mother and father in January of 2013. (Pictured right, Thom Van Pham and Tony Pham. Photo courtesy Rock Island Dispatch-Argus.)
We pulled up to Le Mekong along 5th Avenue in downtown Moline on a cold Monday evening. (see map) When we entered found a nice, clean open area with a small bar. Just beyond the bar was a window that looked into the kitchen.
Our waitress for the evening was a pleasant young lady who welcomed us to Le Mekong and guided us into the dining room. It turns out we were the only people in the place, so we had our pick of tables to sit at. Cindy picked out a table near a gas fireplace in the dining room to help take the chill off the cold evening. Our server gave us a couple of menus and also took our drink order. I got a Deschutes Mirror Pond pale ale that I was pleasantly surprise to see that they had on their menu, while Cindy got a glass of sauvignon blanc wine.
We're both still trying to feel our way around a Vietnamese restaurant menu, but we pretty much have a better idea of what to look for after a couple three stops at Vietnamese restaurants since last fall. Of course, they had pho - a staple of Vietnamese food - as well as chicken or shrimp curry dishes, stir-fried beef entrees, as well as chicken, pork and seafood selections.
We started out getting a spring roll appetizer - shrimp, vermicelli, greens, and herbs wrapped in rice paper. It came with a peanut plus sauce on the side. The spring rolls were very fresh and very tasty. The shrimp were plump and cool inside the wrap. The peanut plum sauce was a great accompaniment to the spring rolls.
I was leaning toward getting the Ambassador Beef - stir-fried beef with bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, celery and onions. But I ended up getting the beef pho with both the beef strips and the meat balls. The meat balls were cut in half and the beef strips were the size of silver dollars. Bean sprouts came on the side with a hoisin plum sauce. The pho was packed with noodles and finished with chopped green onions. It was very good - the meat balls packed a lot of flavor, the beef "strips" were tender, and the broth was a spot hitter on a cold evening. There was a lot of it, too. I ate what I could and ended up leaving about half the bowl full of broth.
Cindy got the coconut basil chicken curry. It featured strips of chicken along with baby carrots and baby potatoes, as well as tomatoes and bell peppers. It was in a light coconut curry broth and rice came on the side. She declared the dish to be "delicious". About halfway through the meal, she said, "Why haven't we tried this before?"
And the bottom line is that we will be back to Le Mekong. The food was wonderful, the service was very good - we WERE the only people that dined in while we were there (there were a number of people who picked up to-go meals) - but our waitress was efficient and very attentive to our needs. The decor was upscale, but we didn't feel like it was a snooty place at all. Le Mekong is back on the track and I'm glad that we finally gave it a try.