Sheer coincidence takes us to the City of Westminster, just as Little Saigon marks the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. How fitting then to visit a restaurant that was among the first to open in the area, long before you could get pho or banh mi on nearly every block.
And it is the end of the Vietnam war that brought Diep Lan Vo and her family to California. They settled in Westminster along with so many other immigrants from Vietnam.
Song Long started as a bakery in 1981, then the restaurant opened in 1985.
Today, the restaurant continues to serve patrons old and new with its long standing menu of both Vietnamese and French cuisine. Quick history lesson. The French occupied what was then Indochina and the French influence is clear the first time you bite into a good banh mi sandwich.
The still family run Song Long (like so many restaurants in Westminster) is tucked away on the back side of a strip mall. It opened in 1985, by Diep Lan Vo, who had trained at the Cordon Bleu Paris. She's since retired, but other family members maintain her standard of excellence.
Her nephew, Tri Tran manages the restaurant now and had the kitchen prepare both Vietnamese and French dishes for Dinner Out.
We started with the green papaya salad; pale shredded papaya, capped by a dark green chiffonade of Vietnamese coriander, called rao ram and then finished with shreds of bright red beef jerky. The jerky is tender and sweet, thanks to a marinade of papaya juice. Refreshing, yet surprisingly satisfying, with that accent of beef.
Probably more recognizable, the egg rolls. These are wrapped in rice paper, not wonton skins, stuffed with pork, crab and vegetables. They're served with a forest of greens, lettuce, three kinds of herbs and a daikon carrot slaw. Take a leaf of lettuce, leaves of mint, coriander and basil and wrap like a burrito, then dip into the fish sauce for a perfect bite. There's the crisp of the greens, umami from the fried meaty nugget with an addictive herb-y finish.
Another specialty is the Chao Tom, shrimp paste wrapped around sugar cane. Tri showed me the proper way to eat; slice down the cane to remove the shrimp. Also on the table, a special dispenser, for discs of rice paper and a hot water well to soften them. A quick dip is all you need, to turn something that looks like plastic, into a soft wrap for the sausage textured like shrimp, add greens, vermicelli and more of that daikon carrot slaw and you've created you're own custom spring roll.
Adventure eaters might want to try the Vietnamese version of a pork bao or bun. In addition to the meat, there's a hard boiled egg steamed in that spongy white dough. I'm not a bao fan, because of the dough and this version didn't change my mind.
The dish I saw on nearly every table at Song Long is the sizzling fish; cha ca thang long. It's boneless catfish filets, colored and flavored with turmeric, pan fried until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. But what makes this dish so popular besides the flavors is the way it's served; on a blazing hot cast iron griddle. The fish is buried in handfuls of fresh dill, topped by caramelized onion strings and a sprinkle of chopped peanuts. Some people like to take the fish and grilled vegetables and wrap them in the lettuce to eat taco style. Tri suggested i put a mound of vermicelli or bun in a bowl, crumble sesame crackers for crunch, add some herbs and then finally the fish and cooked veggies.
The dish then calls for a splash of fish sauce. There's the mild version that comes with the egg rolls, but I had heard about the dark purple sauce, not favored by non-Vietnamese. "Bring it on! I said to Tri. The bowl arrives with the thick sauce called mam nem. It's fermented anchovies and is meant to bring out the fish flavor of the catfish. I poured a small ladle full into my bowl and Tri warned not to over do it. I took a whiff and understood why he was a little worried. The sauce is thick and pungent. It smelled of ammonia, but then a lot of fermented things might smell off but taste good. I took a bite and actually, in modest amounts, might prefer the stronger sauce over the milder version, because the mam nem isn't sweet.
All in all, the dish is delicious even without any fish sauce. The flavor of the fish only slightly recalls curry, instead there's a whole spectrum of flavors and textures that make this the "must have" dish of the entire menu. One patron told me he'd even traveled to Hanoi, hoping to find a sizzling fish like the one at Song Long, but he realized the restaurant's version was far superior, if only because what he called the raw materials are so much better than what's served in Vietnam.
To finish off my tour of the Vietnamese dishes, there was grilled pork, three ways; a rustic sausage patty, slices from a chop and strips from
The char on the meat is the prominent flavor, but it's served in a savory fish sauce. This is another one where the goods are wrapped in lettuce leaves or enjoyed with a tangle of noodles. Umai!
From the French side of the menu, a giant urn of bouillabaisse or fish soup. Giant crab legs topped the stew full of shrimp, clams, mussels and rings of calamari. Just as they taught Chef Diep Lan Vo at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the soup is rich with fish stock, the seafood remains tender and a sprinkle of cheese is the finish.
There's also a classic Filet de Sole au Gratin. Sole is stuffed with broccoli. covered in cream sauce and finished with a browned, crust of melted cheese. This is a mild dish and inarguably French with nary a sign, it was cooked in the same kitchen as that sizzling fish.
For patron Jim Johnson, the piece de resistance is the Chateaubriand. It's a three and a half inch thick cut served with bearnaise sauce. This is prime beef, char grilled perfectly and the bearnaise sauce is executed equally as well. Johnson told me, it's fork tender. I used a knife, but admittedly, a dinner knife, not a serrated steak knife and it was tender. Absolutely, delicious, but what was really notable... the price. Under $20 bucks! What?
I was ready to cry uncle, but Tri also brought out desserts. The most accessible was the flan, but the most interesting had to be the sweet rice pudding with corn. Think traditional rice but instead of vanilla or cinnamon, the starring flavor was sweet corn. Another version was green with a mild tasting herb and chunks of taro, buried beneath the pudding and a sweet layer of coconut milk.
· 9361 Bolsa Ave
· Westminster, California 92683
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