Mekong Plaza, the shopping center in west Mesa that caters to shoppers of east Asian heritage, as well as the adventurous of all ethnicities, is so many things at once: a collection of restaurants and food vendor talls, a supermarket and specialty food shops, and a place to get one’s hair cut or nails done. It’s no surprise then that one of its namesake tenants, Mekong Palace, is three (or more restaurants) in one. Located at the north end of the building just beyond the food court, Mekong Palace has several distinct ways for customers to approach its mostly Cantonese food.
As for a little background, Mekong Plaza, the shopping center that is home to Mekong Palace, is an old Target store renovated nearly a decade ago and adapted to serve the large Asian population along or near Dobson Road in Mesa and Chandler. The Sycamore / Main light rail station is a quarter mile to east. Mekong Plaza has several bike racks out front, but they’re often full. For more opportunity to lock a bicycle, look for more semi-hidden racks on the less busy north side of the building, facing Main Street.
Once inside Mekong Plaza, walk through the food court and a corridor leads to a host station. At peak times, especially for weekend dim sum service, expect to see a line forming in the hall and backing up into the food court. The main dining room lies beyond, and it’s a large open space full of circular tables and a wall of fish tanks holding live seafood available for immediate preparation. There’s also a small carryout counter selling meats like crispy chicken, roast duck, and barbecued pork to go, and a separate side room for the distinctive hot pot experience at Mekong Palace.
Of Mekong Palace’s several identities, the most familiar is that of a comprehensive Chinese restaurant serving dishes from myriad regions of the vast nation but with a familiar emphasis on the Cantonese cooking best known in American restaurants. The menu is as expansive as the dining room, and there’s no way to sample everything. For those who want to do their best to try, Mekong Palace does offer a variety for feasts formatted for groups. These go beyond the usual sweet-and-sour this-and-that to feature items such as salty-spicy crab and seasonal greens.
The a la carte sections of the menu include dozens of choices in each major category. There’s not only a selection of soups, but also an entirely separate section devoted to noodle soups. Mekong Palace’s version of an American Chinese wonton noodle soup features abundant stalk of greens in addition to the usual starch and meat components. If something more exotic is desired, winter melon quail soup or conch soup should appeal to the adventurous. Likewise, appetizers range from unthreatening crowd pleasers like egg rolls to acquired tastes such as cold jelly fish.
Among the entrees, crispy chicken, available in both full and half sizes, comes with charred skin, a moist interior, and little rice wafers on the side. Shrimp with broccoli has abundant prawns and crisp, vibrant produce. Snow pea leaves are called something like “garlic vines” here. The greens are indeed prepared with a great deal of garlic for a boldly flavored vegetable dish. Braised tofu, full of vegetables in brown sauce, is a mild and meatless entree. Sole filets arrive stir-fried with big mushrooms, greens, chives, and some ginger. The tanks are full of crabs, lobster, and tilapia.
At midday, the main dining room switches to dim sum service, with rolling carts piloted by restaurant staff offering all sorts of treats for a Chinese tea brunch. Although the plates are small, the copious offerings add up quickly to form a full meal. Expect to be offered items such as lo mein noodles in a soy-based sauce; barbecue pork buns with a sweet, flaky exterior; gai lan drizzled with soy sauce; big, sweet shrimp dumplings, peel-and-eat shrimp, egg rolls with a shrimp filling, and shumai stuffed with ground pork and shrimp. Waits for a table are common on weekends.
While dim sum is an alternative use of the restaurant’s main dining room, there’s a separate room off to the side that serves another type of meal entirely: hot pots. These are not the clay hot pots from the main dining room menu, but instead an experience in cooking for oneself at the tabletop. Each table has induction burners hidden in little drawers. Each diner has his or her own recessed burner and heat controls. Everyone orders an individual pot of broth, and the entire dining party usually shares meats, vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, and noodles to be cooked in the hot broth.
The standard broth, made from chicken and pork bones, is quite mild. It’s best to use ingredients from the condiment bar to enliven it, either by adding some of the sauces or herbs there directly to the broth, or by creating a customized dipping sauce to use once the food has been cooked. The sichuan broth is indeed spicy, but not in the same way as the hot sauce found among the condiments. Instead, the unique style of pepper used here produces a numbing sensation on the lips and tongue. It’s an unusual sensation and a reason to proceed with caution when ordering.
In the hot pot room, a complimentary dessert such as coconut gelatin is usually provided. In the main dining room, orange slices are more common. A basic selection of beer and wine are available to drink, along with teas and fountain sodas. With its voluminous menu and its three different dining experiences, or maybe even four if one counts the carryout counter, Mekong Palace is as multifaceted as the larger Mekong Plaza shopping center it is part of, and it might come close to offering customers as many choices as the old Target store that preceded it.
66 S. Dobson Rd., Mesa, AZ 85202