RVA 2, PDX 0
The first shot that I heard was fired last October when Richmond, Virginia (RVA) was named by Outside magazine and its readers as the top river town in America from 10 finalists. Although Portland was not one of the finalists, Hood River was on the list and they are an acceptable proxy for PDX in this competition. It does not appear beer was one of the listed criteria, but many of the things we pride ourselves on were, such as cultural vibrancy, environmental stewardship and access to the outdoors. RVA received 46 percent of the 20,000 plus votes to second place Hood River's 13 percent. Other finalists often mentioned for quality beer combined with outdoor access included Durango (8 percent), Asheville (6 percent), Missoula (5 percent) and Boise (4 percent), so Hood River represented PDX well. Many from Beervana might take particular pleasure in beating Asheville which has out-voted Portland several times to earn the right to use the title of 'Beer City USA' which Outside did mention in their write-up on Asheville.
This triumph for RVA was on my mind when non-beer related business took me through Richmond last week. Although I would not be able to take part in any of the river related activities mentioned in the article such as kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, I had high hopes of checking out the Hardywood Park Craft Brewery that held a voting drive 'fueled by 8 percent beer' for the River Town title. However, Hardywood only has a tasting room that is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so they would not be an option on this trip. This led me to perform a quick search on the world wide web for a good beer bar where I could grab dinner. Soon I discovered that during the same time that people were online voting RVA as the best river town, they were also stuffing the ballot for Mekong Restaurant on the Brewer's Association's inaugural 'Great America Beer Bar' contest. The contest drew nearly 30,000 votes and even though the Brewer's Association is not as transparent with their voting results as Outside, APEX (the Pacific region's top beer bar, beating out Urban Family Public House in Seattle and Beer Revolution in Oakland) did not even make the top three nationally. The top honors went to, you guessed it, Mekong Restaurant in Richmond, VA.
Normally, I do not put a lot of stock in best of lists on the internet. However, I was extremely intrigued to check out the 'Best Beer Bar' in America because not only do I always try to find a place to get a good meal and a good beer when travelling, but also because this particular place was a Vietnamese restaurant. Portland has many things beer related, but an Asian restaurant with more than a handful of decent beers does not exist here to my knowledge.
From the outside, Mekong looks like any other suburban Asian restaurant in a strip mall. It is on a busy thoroughfare surrounded by gas stations, mini marts and other businesses that would never make any best of lists. Once you step inside, expectations do not change much. The place has dark carpet that may or may not be clean, banquet tables spread across four rooms with table cloths and lazy susans in the middle of the larger ones and ceiling tiles with visible markings from water damage. If you are lucky enough to get one of the few tables without a table cloth, you will notice Mekong's logo that plays on Virginia's famous travel slogan of 'Virginia is for Lovers' by changing it to 'Mekong is for Beer Lovers'. The walls are mostly decorated with nondescript Asian decorations like fans and drawings, but intermixed are banners for beers that you would not think would ever be served in a place like this such as Ommegang and Allagash. Sitting down in the restaurant portion, aside from all the workers wearing t-shirts with 'Beer is the Answer' on the back, you may still not realize you are in anything other than a standard issue Vietnamese restaurant. The food was average and made no mention of suggested beer pairings or anything about beer being used in its preparation. In fact, beer was not even listed on the menu.
However, once you ask for a tap list you realize that they do indeed take their beer seriously here. On the day I visited, the 26 taps selected by Chief Beer Officer An Mekong leaned heavily on imports from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but also had a good craft selection from across the States. The bottom of the list even had a separate section for 'Wild, Sour, Sweet, Funky, Beer Gone Wild' (e.g., Tilquin Oude Gueuze and BFM Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien 2011). One beer on the tap list from a brewer called 'The Andall' required furthering inquiry. It was called Morning Thunder Stout and it was described as 9.0% abv stout with coffee, figs and vanilla notes from the good ole USA. It turns out it is an imperial strength stout that they then run through a randall stuffed with Madagascar vanilla beans, Chesterfield figs and home roasted coffee beans. What Asian restaurant is infusing their own beers?
After dinner, I decided to wander over to the bar to see if that felt more beer focused. The carpet continues into the bar, but the Asian influence mostly fades away to signs for things like the RVA Beard League and Mekong's upcoming 18th Anniversary party. In case you will be in the area March 25-31 or if you are just curious, the greatest beer bar in American will be celebrating their right to vote by hosting a 'Festival of Barrels n Wood' with over 100 beers that have been aged in barrels or on wood. The bar area itself was standing room only and it was a Tuesday night with no discernible event going on. Show me any other Asian restaurant bar that has more than a few people in it after happy hour ends and before karaoke begins.
I am not sure Mekong is the best beer bar in America, but it is certainly the most unique. I would not go out of my way to go to Mekong again, but every beer lover should go there at least once to experience it. Then maybe someone will bring the idea back to Portland so we can catch up to Richmond.
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