Kristine M. Kierzek
When Mekong Cafe, 5930 W. North Ave., opened in 2008, it quickly became known for its lunchtime buffet, a place where owner Banh Phongsavat and her children could share foods from her roots.
Naming the restaurant for the longest river in Southeast Asia was a nod to the reach of the river, a connection to their past and present. Mekong Cafe’s menu is a crossroads of Lao, Thai and Vietnamese dishes.
The name alone tells you part of the Phongsavat family history, as does every dish on the dinner menu, from sticky rice and dips to cucumber salad, spring rolls, pho and sausage from the great -mother Chanta.
Like so many others, the handling of the pandemic over the past year has forced the family to rethink the way they run their restaurant. When their well-known buffet closed, the small family business found itself in trouble. They added online ordering. Take-out and curbside customers intensified, but the owners knew they had to make a big change not just to survive, but to thrive.
They already have.
At the end of last year, they made a decision, said co-owner Sichanh Volp, daughter of Banh Phongsavat. The family held a sale, giving away every last warming dish and buffet accessory to free up space for their next venture: an Asian market.
As Mekong Cafe enters its 13th year this month, the family intends to make it a one-stop-shop, offering Asian produce, grocery staples, ready-made meals and an updated menu for entrees. take-out and local delivery.
Volp, who has four brothers, takes care of much of the cooking with his mother and sister-in-law, Boualoy Phongsavat, while his brother Boutanh Phongsavat did most of the chores up front. the House. She talks about dream changes, adjusting their menu, and the planned opening of grocery operations this month.
Question: What is the origin of your family? What is the history of Mekong Cafe?
To respond: We are refugees. Came here when I was 5. My mom kind of started working in a factory and then working for restaurants like King and I. I think that’s where a lot of Asian cooks start working. She had this dream of opening her own restaurant. It is family owned and operated. It’s my brothers and me, my mother, my sister-in-law. We are Laotians, and we offer Thai, Lao and Vietnamese.
During the Vietnam War, as refugees, we were in the Thailand camp. Hearing my mother’s stories and her struggles shaped me. … My mother worked in the restaurant business for over 10 years before deciding to open her own restaurant.
I had no cooking experience as my mother cooks. I knew the basics. In Lao culture, the girl should be in the kitchen and learn from her mother. There are no written recipes. You are just taught from a very young age. You are taught the ingredients, the specific dishes and the taste. It’s good it’s done.
Q: What is the first dish you learned from your mother?
A: As a child, my mother taught me how to make sticky rice and jasmine rice. It’s a must. We steam the rice in a bamboo steamer. Measuring cups are not known in our culture. I should put my hand in the pot. My mom would say you just have to make sure the water gets past your index finger, right there. It was something to master, the jasmine rice. It was a feat. Lao cuisine, our staple food is rice, cucumber salad and papaya salad.
Q: What is behind the name Mekong Cafe?
A: We asked, “Mom, what do you call your restaurant?” I want to call it Mekong Cafe; the Mekong River reminds him of his homeland. She hasn’t been back for over 30 years. She never came back. The restaurant at least allows her to feel that she can share her culture.
Q: How did you come to the decision to no longer have buffet and table service?
A: Many of our customers are upset and disappointed. We also miss our buffet. We really enjoyed cooking the buffet food. … It was fun for us to cook because we could pull out items and see if our customers would like it …
When they gave the order to stay home, we just didn’t have enough people to get through the doors.
Q: Tell us about the removal of seats and the addition of Asian grocery.
A: We want to carry basic necessities and meet the needs of our customers for daily use, such as eggs, vegetables, while remaining true to our roots with Asian products.
Q: What was the first thing you had to stock up on at the grocery store?
A: Curry paste. We use this ingredient so much that we have to store it. We ordered everything we were going to use, and that was the very first thing, then the seasonings, like the beef paste for the pho. We will also have canned and dry products.
Q: What is the dish that tells your story, the one that you want people to enjoy for its story?
A: Grandma’s sausage, sai oua, is a family recipe. My grandmother actually made it for us here at the restaurant, and we sold it. Now my mother prepares the sausage. We stuff it ourselves here, and it’s a recipe I’m really proud of because it tells me about my roots.
Q: What do people need to know about what you are currently doing? New on the menu?
A: We are going to offer more authentic foods, like what we eat at home. People can come in, grab-and-go. We will have lots of Lao sauces in containers. These sauces are long to prepare but authentic. Laotians eat them with steamed vegetables. We will offer steamed vegetables and wrap them to go.
Of course, the banh mi too, it’s a good addition. We make the barbecue roast pork and the pâté in house. So good.
Q: Have you always wanted to be part of the restaurant?
A: I actually went to Alverno to become a nurse. … My mother opened the restaurant. It was my brothers who worked here. She just needed my help. Now I support it 100% and I am a co-owner. I always help people and I’m happy.
Q: What do people need to know if they are ordering pho?
A: Pho, there are different types. People automatically think it’s Vietnamese food. Pho made by a Laotian is different. Thai put red curry paste in the broth. Laotian you see spice racks. When you come here we have a big spice rack, hoisin, different types of garlic, all those toppings to put in your broth. Laotian pho, we love vegetables and sauces.
There’s no right or wrong way to season your pho. I think it’s more fun to eat with chopsticks. You must have an Asian tablespoon, however, it just doesn’t taste like a regular tablespoon.
Q: What is one thing you would like everyone to try?
A: Try the banh mi, and all of our sauces and sticky rice. There will be different flavors of sauces, chili tomato, jeow bong. We will make them fresh and have them labeled. When we miss, we miss. Some of these dishes take so long that you simply cannot prepare them.
Q: What is the most time consuming thing on the menu, something worth it?
A: We’re going to come up with a bamboo shoot stew, it’s more of a process. You need to shred and boil the bamboo before putting it in the broth. Grandma’s sausage also takes time, seasoned with lemongrass and (lime) leaves.
Q: What do you want people to know about the changes you are making?
A: Our community has shown us that they support us. They want us to be there when it’s all said and done.
One of our customers, always the first customer at our buffet every morning, left me a note. He said he wanted to give us a loan if we needed it. I was so touched by that. I haven’t seen him since the buffet stopped. Hopefully once he knows we’re back and open with grab and go, he’ll come back. I still have this note.
To contact Mekong Cafe or order, call (414) 257-2228 or visit www.mekong-cafe.com.
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