Monday, March 16, 2015

Quick Hits: Mekong Bistro, Casba Mediterranean Cafe

Mekong Bistro claims to be Portland's only Cambodian restaurant, and I'm willing to bite. From a brief visit at happy hour—midweek that means from 3 to 6 p.m., perfect for those able to get their drink on early—the cocktail and beer specials are good and the snackage is abundant. But if you want to order some plates to share off the main menu, you'll be amply rewarded with authentic, intensely flavored treats not found on other menus, and nowhere are they executed any better.

That's because the owner's mother, Saroeun Khut, who fled Cambodia with her children after her husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge, is in the kitchen recreating the food of the country she left behind. Take, for instance, Ah-mok, catfish steamed in a banana leaf boat with coconut and lemon grass (top photo). The leaf, folded just so, its prow fastened with a peg to contain the luscious juices of the fish, arrives with slices of cooling cucumber sided with an umami-bomb of a dipping sauce.

Another must-have is the Angel Chicken Wings (above left), painstakingly deboned and stuffed-to-bursting with ground pork, silver noodles, onions and carrot served with a sweet and sour sauce. (Be afraid, Pok Pok, be very afraid.) Myself, I'm going back for the somlaw maju kreoung, called watercress soup on the  menu, a brilliant green broth of greens and beef redolent of tamarind and kaffir lime.

If you go, while the menu also features some Thai-inflected items like pad thai, ask to be pointed in the direction of the Cambodian specials like the chicken salad called nyum that I've heard is also, well, yummy. You'll be in for a rare trip through a Cambodia long gone.

Details: Mekong Bistro, 8200 NE Siskiyou St. 503-265-8972.

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A lot of big cities have great little ethnic restaurants scattered in the downtown core, sandwiched in teeny spaces between office buildings, serving lunch to office workers who don't have time or money for big two-martini (or these days, a single glass of wine) spreads at noontime. Portland has suffered from a dearth of these places, particularly lately with downtown rents skyrocketing, forcing many small businesses out of the central downtown area. One little gem I found recently is Casba Mediterranean Cafe in Old Town across from the NW Natural Gas building.

A clean, tidy spot, it has brightly colored walls with beautifully patterned Middle Eastern tiles and large windows that let the light from the street spill in. Its menu features a good selection of Mediterranean specialties like hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, kabobs, shawarma and gyros, all excellent and exceedingly affordable. A must-have is the Moroccan mint tea, delivered to your table on a silver tray set with a silver teapot, your hand protected from its warm handle by a robed fellow sporting a tarboosh, a type of fez.

Good homemade food, honeyed tea served on a silver tray, all for a song? This is my kind of place.

Details: Casba Mediterranean Cafe, 201 NW Davis St. 971-544-0875.

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