Song Long Bakery is the Little Saigon version of Jax Donuts or Norms: a standard, one that has stood for so long people take it for granted, leaving the venue to old-timers who never challenge the owners to create something fresh. I've passed by Song Long for years, never particularly interested in trying it, never hearing buzz from my Viet friends about the dive other than their fathers spent far too much time there smoking cigarettes and downing stiff, chilly cafe sua da.
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I finally took the jump a couple of months ago and was initially underwhelmed. There are only about a dozen bánh mìs, all 9 inches long instead of a foot, all squat. The wrapped to-go counter options weren't many; the boba drinks, an afterthought. But Song Long makes up for its shortcomings with the best damn bánh mì chay (vegetarian) you'll ever taste. It's so savory and juicy I thought the staff misplaced my order when I looked inside the sandwich to find glistening brown chunks of what appeared to be sautéed chicken. It was actually tofu shaped into meat, glazed with peanut sauce, as chewy as any hen. Some folks don't like that Song Long puts the sandwich in a toaster for a spell for an extra-crunchy finish, but I like it: The springiness of the baguette gets accentuated, as if you're biting into a trampoline that bounces back upon your chomp—provided said trampoline was in Willy Wonka's factory and made of wheat instead of rubber and metal.
The other bánh mì choices are fine: salty sardines, smoky grilled pork, a savory pâté. But Song Long is one of those Vietnamese bakeries at which the art of French-inspired pastries is the true treat, and one only needs to eat a couple of pâté chauds to wish the French occupation lasted a bit longer. Think of the puff pastry as the best pot pie this side of Iowa: flaky, buttery, with piping-hot pâté in the center, swirled so it resembles one of those ziggurats-in-progress you remember from elementary school. The sweet croissants—almond, strawberry, chocolate, raisin—possess a flakiness similar to the pâté chaud, one almost as delicate as silk. The bánh cam, sesame seed balls stuffed with mung-bean past, is a wholly Vietnamese invention, but their toasty earthiness is magnificent. And the nem nuong cuon features grilled pork patties that are surprisingly spicy, with shards of egg rolls as crunchy as a chicharrón. Song Long might not inspire crazy Yelp odes, but that's okay: That means more for the elders and those who know its beaten-down beauty.
This column appeared in print as "The Elder of Euclid."