Sandwiched between Debbie's Destiny Lounge and a 99 Cent Store, Song Phung is the typical Asian-American restaurant that could be plucked from its strip mall location in Forest Park and set down in any of the other thousands of malls across America.
The Scene The large square dining room displays the usual Chinatown kitsch of bamboo and dragons, as well as red plastic flowers on the tables and a disco ball from the ceiling. A large American flag hangs behind a small stage in the corner of the room, bearing the remains of Saturday night's band and a karaoke machine. Above the stage is a television blasting something akin to the Saigon Variety Hour: lots of shiny clothing and ballads. The dining room is empty on this Sunday evening, except for what appears to be a couple of the owner's family members in a booth.
Asian menus are often so large I usually depend on the server, chef or owner to guide me in selecting something they consider especially delicious or is popular among their clientele. Tonight the owner, a lovely Vietnamese woman, helps us choose appetizers and entrées.
Chio Gio Song Phung ($5.95) is delivered first: Five deep-fried balls of marinated, sliced pork, assembled at the table by wrapping them in iceberg lettuce, vermicelli noodles, fresh mint, a slice of cucumber and dipped in a sweet/hot chili oil. "Fried ball of yummy," my guest declares as she shoves the whole concoction in her mouth with her fingers. Cha Gio Vietnam ($2.75) is the more familiar cold, rice-paper spring roll with vermicelli, fresh mint, julienned carrots and a requested substitute of tofu for the pork. Very good: I'm not sure I even shared.
Our meal continued to be served one dish at a time, which is usually OK if you have only a few minutes to drool as someone else eats. Our first entrée was served 15 minutes after appetizers, the next 10 minutes later, and the last entrée served as the first two were finishing. We wondered what would transpire if there were more than one table of diners. The owner hovered as she served each one, waiting for us to take the first bite with a "How you like?"
None of us were brave enough to try any of the dishes with goat meat, instead opting for Hu Tieu Xao Dong Co ($6.95), a vegetarian entrée described as "stir fried rice noodles with black mushrooms and tofu." A mound of wide, oily noodles with tofu and baby bok choy was delivered, not a mushroom in sight. But I love bok choy, so I didn't mind. The flavor of the dish was great, but the excessive oil detracted from exceptional flavor.
My guest adored her Bun Thit Noung ($5.25), a cold salad of rice noodles, vegetables and chicken in a spicy sweet oil based dressing. The owner was keen on us to try the Ca Kho To ($12.95), "catfish sauteed in our home-made spicy sauce, cooked in a clay pot." This one we could not finish: Over-looking the amount of time picking out tiny catfish bones, my guests and I agreed the sauce was incredibly salty, a fact even the white rice couldn't absorb. The owner was clearly disappointed when we didn't share in her enthusiasm for the dish.
The Sizzle Even though the food was good, we couldn't help but notice that we were the only customers during the two hours we dined. The owners (the Vietnamese woman and her American husband) seemed so eager to please, it bordered on desperation. We could deal with the generous attention, but the dining room was shabby and unkempt (a large table right next to us remained uncleared of dirty dishes and the floor was in need of serious vacuuming), service was slow and the adjacent booth of family was feeding a dog at the table. ©
Go: 637 Northland Blvd., Forest Park
Hours: MondayThursday 11 a.m.9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.11 p.m.; Sunday Noon-9:30 p.m.
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Many choices