Remember when you were a kid and you'd order a hamburger when the family went out for Chinese? And when you finally started eating Chinese food, it was always covered in sweet and sour sauce? Oh, wait ... that was my childhood.
This bad habit followed me until college, when I finally realized that all Asian food doesn't come with little plastic pouches of duck sauce and hot mustard. Apparently, other people know this as well; CityBeat's online dining guide lists 59 Chinese restaurants, one Asian American, 14 Thai, three Korean, 12 Japanese and two Vietnamese -- one of which is Song Long, a Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant owned by the Le family for more than 20 years.
Little has changed at the Le's in this time. The portrait of the family still hangs over a tank of oversized goldfish, both keeping an eye on you as you eat. The decor does seem to be getting an overhaul, however, as pink paint is replacing the more traditional reds and golds. It's an odd color choice, but a little sprucing up can't hurt.
We've always relied on Song Long for the standard Chinese carryout option on those nights we're too tired to cook. The items on the Chinese side of the menu are definitely good, better than most in town. The vegetables are always fresh-tasting, and the meat is well flavored and tender.
But the real stars at Song Long are the Vietnamese dishes.
Vietnamese cooking draws from a number of influences, including French and Chinese. The dishes tend to be spicier than most Chinese food, with predominant ingredients including mint, coriander, lemongrass, ginger, black pepper and rice wine.
I must admit, I've avoided this side of the menu ever since a black pepper sauce dish set my mouth on fire a few years ago.
When we arrived on this particular evening we remembered why we got carryout in the first place -- Song Long has a citywide reputation for slow service. Once one of the Le kids finally gets to you, however, things start to appear on your table as if by magic.
Looking around the dining room, we realize that service isn't the reason people are here. People come to Song Long to socialize as much as to eat, and our table was no exception, helping ourselves to each others' plates and talking about everything from our respective dogs (both of which are perfect) to the Russian mob to when we first realized our parents had sex.
The offerings on the Vietnamese side of the menu include lemongrass dishes, curries, noodle soups and noodles. There are so many options, it's hard to make a choice, but I've always been curious about Banh Bao, the steamed pork bun appetizer ($3.75). We also ordered two perennial favorites -- the spring rolls ($3.75) and the cold rolls, Goi Cuon ($3.50).
Our dining partners warned that the award-winning spring rolls can be hit or miss. This night they were a miss. The shrimp and pork filling was tasty, but the shell seemed like it had been fried multiple times and was pretty darn oily.
The cold rolls never miss, however. The thin rice wrappers hold fresh rice noodles, shrimp, slices of pork and cilantro and are served with a zippy peanut sauce. Mrs. Smith thought the steamed pork buns were like an Asian version of a Bob Evans breakfast sandwich. The odd, bulbous dough held sausage, pork bits, shitake mushrooms and hard-boiled egg.
I can't say I'd recommend this dish, but I'm glad my curiosity is satiated.
For dinner I ordered the Chicken Curry ($8.95). We all agreed that it was the best dish of the four. The chicken and onions were swimming in a rich, dark brown sauce with spicy curry and hints of turmeric and coriander. The Shrimp and Scallops with Lemongrass ($11.95) was a nice contrast to the robust spiciness of my dish -- a much lighter flavor and citrus overtones.
The Thit Heo Kho Tieu ($8.95) was also good. The sliced pork is slow-cooked in a coarse ground black pepper sauce. While spicy, the heat was different than the curry -- much warmer and almost woodsy tasting.
None of us quite knew what to make of the Bo Xao Dam ($9.95), sliced beef cooked in rice wine vinaigrette. The menu description should have made us suspicious: "This sliced beef tickles your senses of sweet and teases your knowledge of sour." But we fell for it.
We followed our trip down the Vietnamese side of the menu with fortune cookies. And while we aren't destined to travel to faraway lands, it's safe to say we'll make the trip back to Song Long.©
Go: 1737 Section Road, Roselawn
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Dinner: 4:30-8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4:30-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Soups, seafood, vegetarian
Accessibility: Bathroom is located downstairs