What images come to mind when you say “Mekong”?
For me, it’s the wide fast-moving river in north-eastern Thailand with Laos beckoning enticingly across the broad waterway. It’s also the mighty timber rice barges, heavily laden, lumbering slowly to port in the lower Mekong river reaches of southern Vietnam. This is a river that starts life in the high Tibetan Plateau and runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally Vietnam. At an estimated 4,350 km in length, it is the world’s twelfth longest river and the seventh longest in Asia.
But why all this chatter about the Mekong in a restaurant column? This month ‘Let’s Eat’ visits “Uncle Bill’s Mekong Kitchen”, a Hua Hin eatery that features Vietnamese and Thai food as the name suggests. ‘Uncle Bill’ is actually Australian Bill De Cis who oversees operations along with co-owner and seasoned Hua Hin restauranteur Sirima “Lek” Narongrit (of Coco 51). The use of ‘Uncle’ in this situation is a nod to the Asian cultural practice of referring to an older person (who’s not a family member) in a respectful though friendly manner.
And so, to our “Mekong” food journey which starts with a selection of appetisers. ‘Mieng Nok’ – stir-fried minced duck, crispy noodles, served with fresh iceberg lettuce cups and a dipping sauce. Light, bright, tasty and perfect for sharing. Mekong Fish Cakes – deep-fried mousse of fish flavoured with red curry paste and herbs. Delicious. ‘Chao Tom’ or Vietnamese Sugar Cane Shrimp is delicately seasoned prawn mince moulded around sugar cane stalks, fried and accompanied by vermicelli noodles and pickled vegetables. As an added bonus, when you’ve devoured the shrimp cakes encasing the sugarcane you can chew on the cane. Our final starter was Samosa. Perhaps not a south-east Asian dish, these crispy Samosa parcels with a chicken and potato filling were moreish and served with sweetened cucumber salsa.
For mains, firstly two Vietnamese dishes. Grilled Lemongrass Beef Salad ‘Bun Bo Xao’ a warm salad of grilled beef, lemongrass, and onions served with salad greens and steamed rice (instead of the traditional vermicelli). Crispy Stuffed Pancake ‘Banh Xeo’ – a Vietnamese street food classic. Crispy thin crepe made with rice flour and coloured canary yellow with turmeric, filled with minced pork, shrimp and bean sprouts accompanied by two typical dipping sauces.
Finally, a Thai favourite – ‘Gaeng Khua Goong’ or prawn curry in turmeric-infused coconut milk with betel leaf accompanied by steamed rice. Delightful spicy undertones as you would hope from a Thai curry and the added peppery notes provided by the betel leaf. A very well-balanced curry and taste delight.
Uncle Bill’s Mekong Kitchen also has a Tex-Mex section to their menu which may seem unusual. Bill assures us that this option is very well received by guests, adults and children alike. The Tex-Mex selection provides variety for these diners and keeps the whole table of customers happy. Our final main dish was the Pulled Pork Burrito. A large flour tortilla stuffed with refried beans, pulled pork, topped with cheddar cheese and accompanied by Pica de Gallo – a classic Mexican tomato-based salsa.
Uncle Bill’s dessert offering is a choice of six from a refreshing plate of fresh fruit, fried bananas, the classic Crème Brule. Although they were enticing, we chose two south-east Asian desserts. ‘Bua Loy Mekong’ or sticky rice balls in coconut milk. The ‘rice balls’ are ground black sesame dumplings in coconut milk with Chinese jujube and ginkgo served in coconut milk and offered hot or cold. ‘Ice Cream Boran’ was the second choice and although not the Thai ancient ice-cream as the name ‘Boran’ suggests. This was delectable coconut milk ice cream served in the shell with fresh young coconut pieces and other accompaniments.
Our final dessert was a crowd-pleaser and fought over by the whole table for every last morsel. Bunuelo or Buñuelos have their origins in Spain, Portugal and later, Latin America. In fact, in Mexico, Buñuelos are a traditional Christmas treat. They typically consist of a simple yeast dough, thinly rolled, shaped into individual pieces, fried and finished with a sweet topping. Uncle Bill’s Mekong Kitchen’s Bunuelo is a thin, crispy tortilla covered in cinnamon and brown sugar served with sticky, caramelised pineapple pieces and topped with whipped cream and ice cream for added decadence. A fitting finish to the meal!
Uncle Bill’s Mekong Kitchen is an inviting venue with three distinct dining areas. The two open-air relaxingly decorated garden areas, or the enclosed room ideal for larger private groups or parties. Overlooking Soi 94, the raised bar area is ideal for pre or post-meal drinks, with the knowledgeable staff waiting to mix up your favourite cocktail or cold beverage.
Situated in the upper section of Hua Hin Soi 94 – one of Hua Hin’s increasingly popular ‘food streets’, Uncle Bill’s Mekong Kitchen is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week and can be contacted on 032 804 594 or via their Facebook page. And if you want home delivery, check out their pages on Food Panda or huahinrichest.com.
Photos and story
by Michael Cullen