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Mekong: Where east meets west

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At Mekong, Belgian beer and Vietnamese cuisine find common ground and a following that can’t get enough.

By Jason Tesauro

The bar at Mekong Restaurant is four deep, and the line for a table is long yet cheerful, full of chatty people, many with children, admiring a colorful display of giant Jeroboam and Salmanazar bottles. A young staff hustles about in black shirts that read, “Beer is the Answer,” which hints at the question this once-struggling establishment faced.

The beer’s why everyone’s here. There’s Bon Chien from Switzerland, Saint Bernardus from Belgium and ample offerings from Virginia with names like Woodbooger, Citra-Ass Down and Hardywood Sidamo. Mekong is one of the most important hubs in the American beer universe, having earned national attention and accolades at the Great American Beer Festival and the praise of every beer geek who’s ever set foot inside. The kicker is that instead of some Taj Mahal of polished taps and tanks, Mekong is a strip-mall Vietnamese joint on a bland stretch of West Broad Street in Richmond, Va.

Owner An Bui’s family left Vietnam in 1986 when his father, a political prisoner, was released from jail.

“My family fled in a tiny boat when I was 10 years old,” he says. “It took us seven days and seven nights to get to Malaysia. Dad had some connections to the U.S. and we had a sponsor here in Virginia through a Catholic group. We came straight to Richmond, and we’ve stayed ever since.”

Nine years later, the family bought a restaurant. Bui was studying hotel management at a community college, so the family turned to him to run Mekong. But back in 1995, the family-owned business with simple wines wasn’t filling seats.

An Bui

“For the first three years, we almost shut the doors,” says Bui. “We were struggling.”

And then owner Bui discovered Paulaner Salvator doppelbock, the beer that changed everything. “The balance of sweetness and maltiness opened the gate for me,” Bui says. That’s when Mekong started replacing the wine on the menu with European craft and finding synergies between Bánh Mì and Belgian pale, pho with fresh IPA, and Com Suon with browns, dubbels and doppelbocks.

“We started a commitment to converting one person at a time to good beer, and it worked. I wish more Asian restaurants carried craft beer,” Bui says. In the years since, Mekong earned its place as the unassuming suds-centric gathering point for brew enthusiasts within a hundred miles, and as Bui’s beer list expanded, so has the clientele. Mekong draws local homebrewers, barflies, beer tourists and wine connoisseurs alike, all of them eager to imbibe and explore.

Bui’s next step is making his own beer. The Answer Brewpub opens any minute, next door to Mekong.

“We’re going to brew what I like,” says Bui, smiling. “Sours, barrel-aged beers, fresh beers straight out of the bright tank, all with a focus on food pairings.” He’s also planning collaborations with Virginia wineries and distilleries, plus beer classes, live local music and a members-only beer-geek speakeasy.

Bui is keeping production strictly in-house because he doesn’t want to jockey for retail space or taps against fellow brewers: “They’re all my buddies,” he says. The Answer will, however, have plenty of guest taps.

It will also be a place for banh mi and beer lovers, “but not burgers and fries. And no pint glasses,” adds Bui, a stickler for proper stemware and serving temperatures. When he’s not pulling taps himself, Bui will be involved in blending and PR. It seems after converting this suburban strip mall into Virginia’s beer epicenter, turning the vacant nightclub next door into a 12,000-square-foot brewpub mecca isn’t a question, it’s The Answer.

BUI BY THE (BEER) NUMBERS

4 underrated beer styles you should love: Berliner weisse gueuze oud bruin saison

5 must-try breweries: Allagash, Bell’s, Franches-Montagnes, Cantillon, Founders

6 favorite Virginia beers: Café Royale barrel-aged coffee stout, AleWerks Lustful Maiden dubbel, Apocalypse Ale Works Vienna Lager, Devils Backbone Gingerbread Stout, Hardywood Park Kong Krush imperial IPA, Extra Billy’s Resolute imperial stout

 

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