Restaurant review: New Mi Li cooks terrific Southeast Asian fare

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From the February 27, 2014 edition

When Merlion semi-recently went under, its fans (count me in) understandably felt a little crestfallen. A rare-around-here Malaysian/Singaporean-and-more eatery in Beechwold, fine Merlion offered many winning, hard-to-find ethnic dishes.

Then it was announced that a branch of Mi Li — a highly respected Vietnamese specialist headquartered in the Columbus Square Shopping Center — would be filling Merlion’s space. Though Merlion no doubt would be missed, this sounded like a terrific replacement.

Turns out Merlion probably won’t be missed as much as originally thought. See, while easing in a few Vietnamese classics, this new Mi Li is still offering a lot of Merlion’s old favorites. In other words, now you can have your Malaysian Fried Noodles and eat your Banh Mi too.

The place is hardly changed from its Merlion days. It’s a humble but tidy mom-n-popper with negligible adornment save for a few decorative tree branch bundles on otherwise bare walls. There are also a couple TVs, one tempting viewers with images of dishes, the other a reception-challenged screen flashing in and out of “no one cares” shows.

Drinks — there’s no alcohol — include irresistible $3 iced “French” (actually Thai/Vietnamese-style) coffees, which are sweetened with condensed milk and are “Am I talking too fast?” strong. So the food’s the only real draw here. Fortunately, it’s damn good … and damn cheap!

Mi Li’s owners apparently believe Vietnamese fare is relatively exotic for Beechwold, because, entree-wise, only pho (aka “Signature Noodle Soup”) and Banh Mi (aka “Vietnamese Subs”) are currently offered. Unsurprisingly, both rock.

Pho Tai ($6.59 for a huge “small” order) treats loads of wispy rice noodles and paper-thin sheets of rare, cooks-in-the-hot-soup beef to a five-spice-perfumed broth gently glazed with flavorful fat and bobbing with snipped scallions. As is customary, a plate of customizing garnishes (limes, sprouts, Thai basil, jalapenos) adds yet more pizzazz to the excellent entree.

Mi Li’s grilled-pork-starring “Vietnamese Sub” ($5.50) is a wonderful sandwich. Inside its crusty and flaky, baguette-esque bun is a vibrant yet balanced array of rich, spicy, earthy, bright and fresh accents showcasing slightly sweet warm meat, mild pate, raw veggies, cilantro and yin-yang condiments.

Moving back to big bowls, Mi Li’s nuanced and terrific Thai Red Curry ($7.75) is about as good as you’ll get in Columbus. Your meat of choice (tender sliced chicken breast works) gets submerged in devil-red-hot broth with whiffs of galangal and fish sauce. Smoothing out the botanical heat some are coconut milk, pineapple chunks, peas, carrots and bamboo shoots.

Staying in the key of singe was the “two fins up!” Penang Shrimp Noodle ($7.75; order it “spicy”). Joining blotches of chili oil, hard-cooked egg, bean sprouts, greens and a light and mildly salty seafoody broth with enticing fermented fish hints were thin rice and thickish wheat noodles, plus good-tasting shrimp.

This brings me to Mi Li’s unspicy but marvelous Malaysian Fried Noodles ($7.75), which I recommend you try. Basically a variation on “wat tan hor,” it’s like several dishes in one.

It all starts with a hulking platter underlaid with a golden-brown “pancake” made of nutty-tasting, extra-thin noodles pan-fried until extra-crunchy. This serves as the toothsome “nest” for wide, smokily cooked chow fun-type noodles, plus plenty of tender sliced chicken breast and Chinese broccoli. Bathing the whole ensemble, though the nest remains amazingly crispy, is a thick, rich and boiling hot “egg gravy.” This comforting wonder can feed two or three hungry diners — unless I’ve ordered it.