When reviewing a place like Song Long Restaurant, we must dedicate at least one sentence to explaining how its existence contradicts its surroundings. We must use the words "tucked away" and "strip mall," not because our thesaurus is in the other room, but because there are simply no better terms to use than those warhorses of food journalism for this dive on Bolsa, a thoroughfare full of gems tucked away in strip malls.
Still, Song Long is exceptional for the area. Like Alice at the sight of Wonderland or Dorothy when she entered the Emerald City, I was actually taken by surprise when I walked inside. It was a dark and gloomy evening (pardon that cliché), but upon swinging open its doors, I entered an elegant room inspired by Bellagio's spring garden. Images of flowers and actual flowers dominate. Ruffled golden drapes frame every window. The tabletops sparkle from glitter.
The only hint that you're still in Little Saigon is that there are too many seats crammed into the small room. And the service: On busy nights, expect the waitstaff to fulfill only the most rudimentary of obligations. They'll take your order and deliver your food, but asking for anything else—say, a refill of water—will take a monumental amount of effort on your part. Our frazzled server actually waved me off the first few times, her patience already on the brink.
Song Long Restaurant. Open daily, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $12-$50. No alcohol.
Perhaps it's the kitchen that overwhelms them. Finished bowls and platters pour out like a slot-machine jackpot. This French Vietnamese restaurant employs cooks who can produce a hot plate of food in the time it takes to assemble a Subway sandwich. I'm not exaggerating when I say that only two minutes passed from the moment our server scribbled our order to the second our three-item combo landed on our table.
Rice forms a dome surrounded by shredded cucumbers, lettuce, carrot and pickled daikon. The wispy concoction of julienned pork skin and meat called bì, small wedges of the steamed egg meatloaf called cha, and shiny pieces of lap xuong sausage sliced in bevels completed a dish you could get anywhere in Little Saigon, but never quite this fast.
By comparison, an appetizer of escargot arrives at a snail's pace (another cliché!). If you order anything from the French side of the menu, let it be this. Greased in parsley-flecked garlic butter, the slugs come equipped with the expected hardware: a dimpled dish, a skinny fork and a gripping tool to grasp the slippery shells. No matter how much hand waving it takes, ask for extra bread to sop up what puddles in those dimples. Song Long's halved hoagie-style baguettes crackle with a thin crust that shatters and a fluffy cloud of a crumb that wants to float into the ether. It's another testament that the most enduring and endearing legacy of Vietnam's former colonial masters is the bread.
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On the menu, there's a Vietnamese doppelganger for every French entrée. The bouillabaisse has a Southeast Asian cousin in lau hai san Song Long, a grandiose seafood soup in its own right. The boeuf bourguignon is countered by bò kho, Vietnamese beef stew. Get the former over the latter. The bourguignon is a dutiful rendition rather than a faithful one, with so much gravy it looks like soup. Get the Vietnamese pork chop with rice rather than the ragged rib-eye steak au poivre, which chews stubbornly. And it should be no surprise the thick French fries are garden-variety Sysco. The only mystery that remains is why a scoop of mashed potatoes rides along with the steak and fries.
The most elaborate meal comes from the dependable roster of dac biet, Vietnamese house specials. Come any night, and you'll see virtually every other table order the cha ca thang long, a fuming-hot plate brimming with delicate pieces of white fish yellowed by turmeric, cooked with onions, and tangled up in fistfuls of dill. You eat the hot components in concert with the cold—tearing tia to herb leaves, dousing the sizzling fish with mam ruoc, a stinky, pinkish sauce made from fermented shrimp paste, and gobbling it all up atop chilled nests of bun noodles. If it takes the kitchen considerably longer to make the dish, it's just as well. The servers could use the breather to smell the flowers and finally refill our water glasses.
This review appeared in print as "Through the Water Glass: Don't mind the harried service at Song Long Restaurant, just focus on its fabulous French Vietnamese meals."