In a reader’s poll conducted by the Brewers Association’s CraftBeer.com, the winner of the Best Beer Bar in America for three straight years was Mekong in Richmond, Virginia. While the Mekong Delta in Vietnam hardly evokes a beery image like the Senne Valley in Belgium or the Bavarian state in Germany, it nevertheless is the namesake of the Vietnamese restaurant that the Bui family opened in 1995. A decade later, led by An Bui, Mekong started developing into an all-out beer destination with 60 taps and more than 50 bottled beers. So while the Bui family serves the same dumplings and spring rolls that launched the restaurant, their website is now MekongIsForBeerLovers.com. Because even if they don’t serve beer-steamed mussels and frites, they do sell lots of Belgian saisons and witbiers that go great with their Canh Chua Hai San, mussels in hot and sour bouillabaisse, along with shrimp, scallops, calamari, and fresh vegetables.
Most Asian-American restaurants serve the beer from the cuisine’s country of origin: Typically 33 Beer at a Vietnamese restaurant, Tsingtao when eating Chinese, Sapparo to go with Japanese, and Singha for Thai food.
That’s essentially saying that every hamburger served overseas should only be washed down with Budweiser. More and more operators are awakening to the realization that they can do more, both in terms of their beer menu and their customers.
For the Bui family, not only does a veritable global beer market complement Mekong’s authentic Vietnamese dishes, but two doors down they also launched The Answer in 2014, which is a proper brewpub. A big part of the reason, according to An, the CBO (Chief Beer Officer), is that they wanted to be able to serve the freshest IPA possible. “One day my dad had an idea of us doing something that we can work together.” One of An’s older brothers runs the kitchen at Mekong, along with his wife, his sister, and her husband. Another brother does the same at The Answer, along with his wife. Where Mekong’s extensive menu focuses on traditional entrées from rice and noodle dishes to pho, The Answer’s food focus is Vietnamese pub food such as bánh mì sandwiches and bao sliders. What’s astounding is that between the two concepts there are some 120 taps with no duplicates, and that’s not even counting the dozens of bottled beers. And none of The Answer’s dozen or so house beers are tapped at Mekong.
Interestingly, Bui says, their first couple of years in business they focused on the wine list, “But it didn’t go so well.” So instead of 750-milliliter bottles of vino, they switched to the same format but with beer, meaning mostly Belgian imports. That’s when they, and their customers, discovered that beers like Dupont Saison go great with Sup Mang Cua—crab asparagus soup—while an order of the Tom Hoa Tien, “rocket shrimp,” or Ga Kho Gung—caramelized chicken clay pot spiced with fresh ginger, garlic and pepper—craves a spicy, estery Belgian dubbel. Even more complex pairings are possible with caramelized pork dishes, such as Belgian tripels and quadrupels brewed with candi sugars.
Halfway across the country in Northeast Minneapolis, there’s a Thai restaurant that’s also a family operation, but on a smaller scale. Joe Hatch-Surisook was born in Bangkok and moved to the U.S. at the age of 6. Along with his wife, Holly, they opened Sen Yai Sen Lek, “Big Noodle, Little Noodle,” in 2008. While Hatch-Surisook has professional experience cooking European-style cuisine, his guiding principle is to bring back authentic preparations of traditional Thai dishes. “My mom was a great cook,” he says, “and she was always particular about making sure the flavors of her dishes were balanced. One of the things Thai food in America has gotten away from is that balance. Things tend to fall on the sweet side. It skews the flavors just a bit. What we’re trying to do here is present food the way I remember it.”
Sen Yai Sen Lek has developed customer favorites such as Khao Soi, a curried noodle dish from the Chiang Mai region that means “street food.” It’s a quintessential dish served with stewed beef or other protein and pickled mustard greens, with crispy egg noodles on top. Additionally, the Pad Kee Mao, or “drunken noodles,” consists of stir-fry wide rice noodles with garlic, Thai chilies, and Thai basil. As Hatch-Surisook says, “It’s supposed to wake you up from your drunken slumber; it’s supposed to be strong!”
As such, it’s not surprising that they’ve developed a thoughtful beer and wine menu. “I grew up in this culture; I’m aware of how people socialize,” Hatch-Surisook says. The restaurant has made such inroads with merely three draft handles—each one rotates through Minnesota-brewed beers, generally from their closest breweries including Surly, Flat Earth, Boom Island, and NorthGate—that they’ve even hosted a handful of beer-pairing dinners. During one five-course dinner hosted in partnership with Fair State Brewing Co-op, plates of Pla Dook Foo—crispy catfish and green mango salad—were paired with Fair State’s Roselle, a sour beer brewed with hibiscus. The results mesmerized guests, and Joe and Holly, too.
Hatch-Surisook notes that local beers, both on tap and in bottles, far outsell the Thai imports like Chang lager, to the point where Flat Earth Brewing even bottles its Xanadu orange-infused porter exclusively for the restaurant. However, they stock Chang and Singha, “for people who think they might need Thai beer ... just like we also offer Pad Thai, but it’s at the bottom of our noodle offerings so they have to read through the others.”
Conversely, in Redwood City south of San Francisco, patrons at Kemuri have no obvious Japanese dishes to fall back on. That’s because the izakaya-style pub that opened in 2015, whose name means smoke in Japanese, features many smoked dishes such as Unagi eel sliders that are designed to go with Japanese whiskeys and imported craft beers as well as locally brewed beers. Kemuri head chef and owner Takeo Moriyama's smoked items, ranging from octopus to deviled eggs to the soy sauce, find intriguing companions in the beers that Yuichiro “Yu” Sato brings in.
Chef Moriyama says his personal favorite pairing is the beef tongue grilled on binchotan, Japanese charcoal, with an IPA. That might be Lagunitas IPA made in nearby Petaluma or, when available, Shiga Kogen No. 10, which is an American-style imperial IPA, yet brewed in Nagano, Japan. The brewery, Tamamura Honten, began as a sake brewery in 1805, and this beer features the same homegrown sake rice, which has the effect of lightning in the body. Though the popular pub can only accommodate around 55 guests (with an additional 20 on the patio), the beers across just nine taps rotate frequently, in part because even though they serve Asahi, diners are eager to discover if perhaps the Hitachino Nest White Ale or the Sansho Ale go better with the smoked sashimi.
The symbiosis of Asian pub culture and American palates continues to develop a foothold, and a Vietnamese brewpub like The Answer isn’t even the first embodiment of this synergy. A pair of non-Asian-created Asian-cuisine brewpubs already exist: In Jackson, Wyoming, brewer Jeremy Tofte created Thai Me Up, a Thai restaurant and brewery that recently spawned the immensely popular and award-winning Melvin Brewery. And in Portland, Oregon, brewer Nate Yovu and chef Chris Bogart launched BTU Brasserie, a Chinese restaurant and brewery. Bogart grew up eating the Chinese food his dad cooked in Vermont. The city of Portland teems with more than 60 breweries. In lieu of burgers or charcuterie, this is the only one that serves Dan Dan noodles where the mala sauce—which has chili and Szechuan peppers—goes so well with the house-brewed ginger lager. People may not feel hungry an hour after these meals end, but they’ll likely be thirsty for more.