In late 2008, an old Target store in west Mesa, approximately a quarter mile from the Sycamore / Main light rail station, was reborn as Mekong Plaza, a shopping center targeting the large southeast Asian community along the Dobson Corridor. In the four years since, a lot has changed in the restaurant lineup there. The food court is finally full after a few false starts, a space that has turned over several times now hosts a noodle shop, and an ambitious place that served Vietnamese seven courses of beef and fish is now a Thai restaurant.
Despite all the change around the edges of Mekong Plaza, the shopping center’s two core restaurant spaces near the main entrance to the supermarket have been stable for four years. One of those slots is occupied by unPhogettable, a name that suggests the menu’s signature dish: Vietnamese rice noodle soup, or pho. Even as adventurous diners have begun to appreciate regional Vietnamese cuisine beyond pho, the restaurant’s well-prepared food, warm service, and highly visible location keep it an obvious place to start exploring Mekong Plaza.
The restaurant has two entrances, one facing the parking lot and the other facing the interior corridor of the shopping center. Both lead to small, neat dining room. It’s not upscale, but it’s not shabby either. There are some interesting prints on the walls, high ceilings above, and stylish light fixtures descending toward the tables. A counter ideal for solo diners seems to have fallen into disuse over the years. A bike rack is located right outside, near the front entrance to Mekong Plaza, with an additional rack situated toward the north end of the shopping center.
Many meals at unPhogettable start with rolls. As at most Vietnamese restaurants, there’s a choice between crisp cha gio, the Vietnamese take on egg rolls, and fresh goi cuon, also known as spring rolls. The selection gets more interesting, though, with three other rolls named for the seasons. These fresh rolls feature different fillings than the usual shrimp and pork combination. The summer and autumn models both feature sausage made on the premises with the latter adding slivers of jicama, an ingredient used in Vietnamese cuisine despite its New World origins.
Obviously, big bowls of soup play a lead role here. There are 16 varieties of pho, ranging from straightforward models with brisket, meatballs, or chicken to everything-but-the-kitchen-sink soups combining multiple cuts of beef with tripe and tendon. A meatless (although not vegetarian due to the beef broth) pho comes with tofu and a generous assortment of vegetables. Other types of soup represented include mi, with egg noodles instead of the more familiar rice variety, and an impressive range of regional specialty soups, many incorporating seafood.
Most of these soups begin as specials called out on a white board near the restaurant’s interior entrance and then later become memorialized as permanent offerings on the printed menu. My vit tiem combines egg noodles with a roasted duck leg, bok choy, and a few shiitake mushrooms. Mi hoahn thanh come closest to a Chinese soup with egg noodles, wontons stuffed with ground meat, shrimp balls, and a few slivers of barbecued pork. Bun rieu uses noodles closer to angel hair with shrimp, crab, egg, tofu, and bits of tomato.
All soups come with a plate of garnishes, most often bean sprouts, cilantro, jalapenos, and lime wedges, but with some variation for different soup types. The usual lineup of sauces — sriracha, chili with garlic, and hoisin – grace every table. While these condiments are standard issue at every pho joint in town, what’s unique at unPhogettable is the role of Chan, the proprietor. He gently discourages throwing every last item into the soup bowl. Instead, he offers guidance about adding herbs judiciously and using optimal mixes of sauces for dipping.
While noodle soups dominate the menu, there are some drier entree options, including a dozen bun, or rice vermicelli, dishes and another dozen rice dishes with grilled meats. As with the rolls, unPhogettable uses sausage to make some of these distinctive. While the restaurant offers bun tom nuong with familiar grilled shrimp, it also provides the option of bun chao tom, in which whole prawns are replaced with slices of shrimp sausage. All these dishes come with lettuce, sliced cucumbers, pickled vegetables, and the ubiquitous fish sauce.
Beverages are limited to the non-alcoholic variety. The fresh squeezed orange juice and the soda chanh, club soda with lime and ice, are refreshing accompaniments to the soups and grilled foods. Fountain sodas, jasmine tea, and bottled water are also available. The desserts are all of the type come in a glass – red beans with coconut milk, tropical fruits with Jello, etc. They’re all relatively light, satisfying, and a good end to a flavor-intense meal. If those are not appealing, walk down the halls of Mekong Plaza for pastry or frozen yogurt.
Interestingly, unPhogettable has a twin restaurant on the other side of the country in Virginia Beach. The pair are run by two branches of the same family on opposite coasts. Family is an important concept here because the restaurant does a nice job of catering to young customers with miniature bowls of pho. While many of the surrounding restaurants in Mekong Plaza have changed menus and identities since 2008, unPhogettable has maintained and improved upon its original approach, providing a bit of continuity in an evolving shopping center.
66 S. Dobson Rd., #140, Mesa AZ 85202
Sycamore / Main Station