By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Jan 29, 2010 at 1:05 PM Photography: Whitney Teska

Indecisive diners, beware. If you have a difficult time making culinary choices at restaurants with large menus, Mekong Cafe, 5930 W. North Ave., is going to be a doozy.

But if you appreciate variety, you're in luck. Mekong features authentic dishes from Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese cuisines. In fact, its slogan is "one magical river, three enchanting cuisines."

Thankfully, the lengthy menu is well-organized, not only by country, but also by content, including vegetarian dishes, seafood specials, fried rice and curries. An asterisk system indicates which dishes can be prepared according to the kitchen's heat index, from one asterisk (mild) to four (spicy).

The restaurant is owned and operated by a mother-daughter team, Banh and Sichanh Phongsavat. Banh, who was born in Laos, settled in Milwaukee in 1990 and made a living cooking at Downtown Thai restaurant The King and I. But here, in her own kitchen, she now has the opportunity to prepare and serve some of her personal recipes from her homeland.

One such example is the Grandma Chanta's Special, which features homemade sausage served with your choice of chicken or pork sauteed with Laotian herbs and either steamed vegetables or papaya salad. There aren't that many Laotian eating options in Milwaukee, making Mekong a fun place to try new things.

Take larb, for example. According to the Phongsavat family, it's a favorite in Laos. The dish is minced grilled meat (either chicken, pork or beef), spiced with chili, lime juice, mint leaves, onions, cilantro and bean sprouts and served on a bed of lettuce. It's not something you see on many menus in this city.

Surprisingly, the restaurant also takes a stab at Western foods, such as burgers and fish fries. But rather than beer-battered, the cod here is prepared in tempura flour and served with Chinese cabbage, grilled eggplant and Jasmine rice. And the burgers don't come with ketchup or mustard. In fact, they're not even beef. The two curry burgers on the menu (choice of red or yellow curry) are grilled chicken with Laotian herbs, curry sauce and vegetables. They do, however, come with seasoned fries.

Admittedly, Mekong Cafe has a lot on its plate. It not only takes on three different ethnic cuisines, but it delves deep into each region while maintaining the style of the common thread that binds them together, the mighty Mekong River.

Price-wise, it's not much different from other Thai restaurants in Milwaukee. Entrees range between $9 and $18 (for the sizzling stuffed jumbo shrimp), and the portions are generous.

Opened in spring 2008, Mekong Cafe replaced Spice Island, a Jamaican restaurant, and before that, a long-standing steakhouse called The Gaslight. Mekong seems to have what it takes to appease diners in the Uptown area and Tosa, and is worth the drive for others. 

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”