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Pho is the star of Mekong Delta's menu

Mekong Delta is the answer to the prayer, offered by many, for an affordable downtown Vietnamese restaurant. Its location, across the street from the old Marconi's, is a bit obscure, but the Central Library is within a block or so. (So is the home of the 14 Karat Cabaret; file that away.) It's a perfect place to drop by on a cold Saturday afternoon for a steaming bowl of pho, Vietnam's entry in the meal-in-a-bowl pageant, and one of the most restorative meals ever concocted.

Tuyen Vo owns and operates Mekong Delta, named for the area of Vietnam where her family owns a successful and popular catering business and restaurant in the city of Ben Tre. Her husband, Luan Nguyen, charismatically runs the front of the house. We visited Mekong Delta when it had only been open for a few weeks. Word had gotten out, to Enoch Pratt employees, to foodies (thanks in part to a post on Dining@Large, The Baltimore Sun's restaurants blog) and nearby workers. There were some waits, and some things ran out, but only a true crank would mind now.

One short flight up from street level, Mekong Delta's brightly painted but sparely furnished dining room even looks like the kind of place that draws a loyal following. There are prints and paintings of the old country on the sunny yellow walls, a few other decorative touches behind the partly concealed kitchen. Word will keep getting out and, soon, Mekong Delta is going to need some more help. (Vo's family is coming for a visit, to give her at least some temporary extra hands.) Until then, try to visit during an off hour, or plan to be patient.

The thing to get here is the pho, either the essential version with grilled chicken, or the heartier one with beef broth, different versions of which are filled with rare beef, beef meatballs, well-done flank steak and soft tendon. Each house's pho recipe is different, but strength is typically considered a virtue, as though the broth not only had been simmering for hours but was made with parts of the animal we don't like to think about too much. Mekong Delta's pho is strong like this. All versions are garnished, by the diner, with bean sprouts, cilantro and lime wedges, along with hoisin sauce and Thai hot sauce. The restaurant also makes a southern-style version of pho, with a milder, brighter broth.

But there are other things on the menu, too. For starters, there are eight variations on the basic Vietnamese rice paper rolls. They're always so pretty, with the ingredients visible, opaquely, through the wrapping. It tasted as though the marinated fillings - pork, shrimp, salmon, chicken and beef, in various combinations with lemongrass, lettuce, vermicelli, cilantro and cucumber - were being grilled fresh to order. These are to be dipped by hand into a zesty peanut sauce.

There are also about two dozen stir-fried dishes, some vegetarian (with or without tofu), served usually with a combination of rice and vermicelli, or rice and egg noodles. We tried a few of these dishes, one with grilled shrimp and pork, the other with mixed vegetables, and were impressed again by how fresh everything looked and tasted. Easy to miss on the menu, but worth having, are the fried spring rolls, or Vietnamese crepes, with shrimp and pork rolled in a slightly sweet, warm shell.

Mekong Delta's lunch special, available weekdays only, is priced, almost unbelievably, at $4.75, which includes a grilled entree and a cold tea. The only dessert available for now is chunked watermelon, which is just what you'd want after a filling meal. You can bring in your own beer or wine, and, for now, only cash is taken. I really love this place, and I intend to go there often.

mekong delta cafe Where: 105 W. Saratoga St.

Call: 443-839-7815

Open: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Credit cards: cash only

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Ambience: ** 1/2

Appetizers: $3.65-$5.50

Entrees: $7.75-$8.95

on the menu •Grilled salmon rolls: $4.75

•Grilled beef lemongrass rolls: $3.75

•Mixed vegetable stir-fry in basil sauce: $7.85

•Grilled shrimp and pork with vermicelli: $8.85

•Viet style chicken noodle soup (Pho Ga): $7.75

•Special beef noodle soup: $8.95

•Shrimp and pork noodle soup: $8.95

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