Le Mekong re-opens after year-long renovation

Originally Posted Online: Feb. 09, 2013, 5:30 pm
Last Updated: Feb. 10, 2013, 12:19 am
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Le Mekong Vietnamese restaurant, a favorite in downtown Moline for 27 years, has a completely new look inside and out, but its menu of freshly-prepared foods remains the same.

The restaurant, at1606 5th Ave., just re-opened after a year-long, $60,000 renovation.

Thom Pham and his family opened Le Mekong -- named for the longest river in Southeast Asia -- in 1985. They started with just 1,000 square feet, expanded to 1,500 square feet in 1991 and to the current 5,000 square feet in 2001, with a maximum seating capacity of 230.

In 2007, the family rented the business to a distant relative, who ran it until January 2012, but Le Mekong suffered in quality, Mr. Pham, 77, said. "We lost a lot of our reputation."

The economy also hurt business, his son, Tony, said. "It seems like now the economy is getting a little better. The last four years was bad.

"You have to look at cleanliness, service, quality. It's not just one little thing, but many things combined together to bring people in the door," Tony Pham said. "If they don't like the environment, they don't like the service, they don't come. You have to combine many factors."

"That's the reason we decided to remodel the restaurant, to update," his father said.

The remodel included a new stucco facade with brick trim, all new furnishings,new carpeting, new restrooms, new kitchen equipment, and doors with stained-glass windows divide the dining area into three rooms.

Perhaps most significantly, the family eliminated the lunch buffet and converted that end of the restaurant to a bar area with tile and granite countertop. The former smaller bar was converted to a tea bar, with 28 varieties of loose-leaf tea.

Tony said they removed the buffet, "because now people like to be more serviced. I think it is a better way to be. We can cook by order.The ladies, they want to be served. They don't want to stand in line."

The menu maintains most of the same items as before, with a few new selections. House specialties include royal egg rolls, Saigon beef, French captain beef, hot and spicy chicken, sugar cane shrimp, Cam Ranh Bay shrimp, fried whole catfish with chili lime ginger, grilled salmon, and special noodles of South Vietnam.

Customers still can get a $7.95 lunch featuring two favorites (such as shrimp, lemongrass pork, grilled salmon, grilled sate chicken, honey roast chicken, hot and spicy beef or chicken and grilled Saigon beef) with a choice of rice or noodles.

The average dinner prices range from $10.95 to $14.95. (A $14.95 dinner special includes appetizer, soup and entree.)

"The food is prepared on the premises," Thom said. "We do not used canned food. It's very fresh ingredients and no MSG. Fresh is very important. When we first opened, we got a lot of John Deere customers, senior management. They were very picky with their food."

"People watch their diet and are very careful what they eat," Tony added.

There's a selection of 50 wines, domestic and imported beers, cocktails, martinis and other spirits. The beers include Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, German, English, Dutch and Japanese.

"We want to make it nicer," Tony said of the renovation. "The most important thing is to keep it affordable for everybody."

"We look at the city of Moline, especially on 5th Avenue, we would like something to look good, to compare with other restaurants," Thom said. "If we maintain the old style, we feel not competitive."

"We've been here very long, actually much longer than a lot of people. It's just about time for us to put the effort to do something for the city of Moline," Tony said. "We try to keep up with the city. We see the city growing, so we have to keep up."

He also credited the city for its financial support and technical assistance on the project. "They were a big help, very supportive."

The Main Street Design Committee -- which reviews city applications for facade improvement grants -- approved nearly $9,000 for the work on the outside of the 103-year-old building.

"They really did a great job of working with Tony on coming up with a design that worked well for the business and was sensitive to the historic nature of the building," said Pam Owens, Moline Main Street program coordinator."I think the project turned out very well."

As for the length of time it took for the renovation, Tony said, "We don't try to be in a hurry. We want to be slow, do it right. We don't need to be very fast. We have to walk first. We don't mind spending a little more money. The important thing is make sure they like it and they come back. You have to spend money to make money."

Thom said he hopes Le Mekong can be agathering place for downtown business people after work, and individual rooms will be available for private parties. The restaurant hasseven employees, and the family still lives in the apartment above the restaurant.

Le Mekongoffers lunch, dinner, carryout and catering. Hours are 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The phone number is(309) 797-8660.


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