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Mekong East: Vietnamese fusion welcome in Bayside

You come home from work too tired to cook. You don’t want to get dressed up or spend a fortune, but you do want to relax while someone else brings your food and cleans up after you. Not too much to ask.

At one time, the solution would have been the neighborhood Chinese restaurant, but increasingly they have given way to take-out joints where you don’t want to spend a nanosecond more than necessary. If you’re looking for a little atmosphere, and food that is exotic without being too challenging, Mekong East on Bell Boulevard in Bayside could just fit the bill.

Vietnamese food is a rare example of a fusion cuisine that comes across honestly. As a French colony, both sides of the equation benefited, if not from colonialism at least from the cross pollination of the two exceptional culinary traditions.

Pho, the national dish of Vietnam is a hot pot rooted firmly in the Asian cooking style. The country’s second most famous dish, banh mi, is a hero sandwich on a baguette that combines ham, pate, and mayo with more Asian ingredients. In Vietnamese cooking, you will find dishes flavored with lemongrass, but sautéed in butter.

Definitely order some appetizers at Mekong East. Fried calamari au beurre is an irresistible Indochine marriage of batter-fried squid served over vegetables sautéed in butter. The chicken salad would also make a fabulous lunch dish. Shredded chicken is blended with red and green cabbage and roasted peanuts in a chili lime dressing. It is redolent of lemongrass, basil and other less easily identifiable herbs. Crispy shrimp rolls are a nice variant of deep-fried crunchy things, filled with whole shrimp, pork, carrots, glass noodles and cloud ear fungus. Of course, we had to try the pho, a meal in itself if ordered by only one diner. The fragrant broth was beefy and herbal as it should be. Asian basil leaves were served on the side along with bean sprouts and lime to balance the flavors and textures to taste. The broth should have been hotter in temperature. In fact, at some Vietnamese restaurants you add raw beef that cooks quickly in the scalding broth. The tepidness could be accounted for by the fact that the pho was shared, and the restaurant couldn’t scrounge up a ladle for serving the soup. We had to use our ceramic tablespoons for apportioning the broth.

Iron-pot lemongrass curry was the frontrunner of the entrees. It came in an iron pot, as advertised, and exuding the aromas of lemongrass and curry. It is not as spicy as its Thai counterpart, but satisfyingly rich and flavorful. We asked for “seafood,” which turned out to be a combo of shrimp and squid, but it would work equally well with any of the choices. Water spinach sautéed with basil sauce ordered with beef was indistinguishable from Shanghaicabbage or baby bok choi. It is a seemingly healthy dish, long on the vegetable component and short on the grease. Fried bean curd sautéed with mixed vegetables was the least distinguished dish of the meal, bland and indifferently seasoned.

We followed our meal with iced Vietnamese coffee, a traditional concoction of very strong coffee and sweetened condensed milk, and banana tart, a very sweet meeting between East and West.

Suzanne Parker is the TimeLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by qnsfood@aol.com.

The Bottom Line

Mekong East is a good neighborhood resource for casual dining. The flavors are both exotic and simpatico with the average Western palate. The prices are modest and the service is well-intentioned if not polished. It’s definitely worth a try when you don’t feel like cooking.

Mekong East

43-13 Bell Blvd,

Bayside, NY 11361

(718) 357-6860

Price Range: Apps $6-$8, Mains $10-$14

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Setting: Small, simply decorated but inviting.

Service: Accommodating but unpolished

Hours: Lunch & Dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.

Reservations: No.

Alcohol: BYOB

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Music: No

Takeout: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Noise level: Acceptable.

Handicap accessible: Yes

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