Sunday, 22 June 2008
On a recent visit to the Kingsland Road, (the main contender in the Vietnamese stakes with its strip of ramshackle cafes) Song Que chose us. As we jostled to look at the menu in the window, someone opened the door to leave and we were hit by a smell so delicious it evoked the same kind of violent hunger usually only associated with the memory of home-cooked Sunday lunches.
Inside, Song Que looks more like a community centre than a restaurant, with its plastic furniture, halogen strip lights and paper tablecloths. It’s what the phrase ‘cheap and cheerful’ was made for, and is obviously a favourite among Shoreditch fashionistas and foodies alike, judging by the lively, chatty and heterogeneous crowd we encountered.
The menu is a taxing affair with over 150 dishes on offer. 28 of these are different kinds of pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup), and it took us some time to agree on a worthy exploration of Song Que’s offerings. We chose to drank Halida – an imported Vietnamese lager as we perused.
Service is swift and thorough, and before long the soft shell crab with chilli and garlic was crossing my lips in an explosion of flavour. The crunchy tempura and outside shell gave way to the gooey, sweet insides of a crab so fresh I simply had to dive in for another one. We should have ordered two portions.
Next came the grilled beef wrapped in betel leaf. This came (like many Vietnamese dishes) served with the mint-like, purple herb shiso, coriander, shredded iceberg lettuce, chilli dipping sauce and pickled mooli. The idea is to eat the dish wrapped in this assortment of Vietnamese condiments.
The beef was astounding. Meltingly rare and tender, it was perfectly paired with the fragrant shiso and herb collection. The little packages resembled stuffed vine-leaves, and had obviously been prepared lovingly with some very good cuts of beef, as gristle and fat were nowhere to be seen.
While flamboyant, steaming pots of pho were carried to their tables, we barely had time for the final mouthfuls of our starters before our chicken in tamarind arrived. Sticky and yellow, it was tasty but lacked the delicacy and fragrance of the earlier dishes. Sadly the chicken had been battered and was cloying as a result, but our side order of ong-choy in garlic sauce cut through the heaviness of this dish with its freshness. The king prawns with chilli and lemongrass marked a return to form too – the prawns juicy and sweet with a tingling kick of chilli.
Because of its herbal qualities, Vietnamese food, when done right, has the tendency to leave you feeling satisfied but vivacious, and, on a sprightly walk downstairs to freshen up for the night out we had plotted over dinner, I just may have discovered the secret of Song Que’s success.
Behind a makeshift wall of boxes of food, bathed in the flickering light from a muted television, I glimpsed a very small, middle-aged Vietnamese man in his night-attire sitting upright in his bed. It seems the space below the restaurant is a stockroom-cum-bedroom for a man, that, I like to think, masterminds the restaurant’s enticing menu from his bed.
Song Que’s immaculate food is testament to a well run family business, but if you need more evidence of a place where the staff literally live and breathe their restaurant, then you just need to nip downstairs and peek at Mr Que.
Bill (for two)
Grilled betal leaf wrapped beef (£3.50)
Soft shell crab with chilli and garlic (£4.75)
Chicken in Tamarind (£5.95)
King Prawns with chilli & lemongrass (£5.95)
Ong-Choy with garlic sauce (£2.95)
Steamed Rice (£1.75)
Halida (£3.00) x 4