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Singing the Praises of Song Long's Viet-French Cuisine

September 16, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

The lyrically named Song Long has little to catch your eye--other than the throngs of locals stoking up on huge platters of leafy vegetables, succulent rice casseroles and whipped cream-topped ice cream coupes in little silver dishes.

It's a basic, cheerful Vietnamese-French cafe and bakery, and it does land-office business at all hours of the day with a menu that is undoubtedly Little Saigon's most eclectic.

Despite being treated more like a tourist than a regular, I love this place.

It is the first restaurant that I introduce to visitors wishing to see Little Saigon, in addition to being the one to which I most often return of my own free will.

There is no denying the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine, but come here if you want to taste the Vietnamese influence on French. Song Long is '90s blendo cuisine without really trying.

Where else can you get dishes like lobster Thermidor, rice noodles with lemon grass and charbroiled pork, Vietnamese-style beef Burgundy, and the shrimp-meat-wrapped-around-sugar-cane delicacy known as chao tom all under one roof?

The restaurant is boxy, brash and bright, all salmon-pink colors offset by the usual Vietnamese indicators; pint-sized stainless-steel coffee pots, squiggly dessert shapes in a sliding-door fridge by the kitchen and silk flowers on all the tables.

Ignore the banal appointments. Cooking at Song Long is surprisingly good, remarkable when you consider the depth of the menu. There is a whole page of eccentric French-style dishes, for instance, balancing the more solid Asian fare. Most Vietnamese specialties acquit themselves with considerable finesse, the equal, or better, of dishes served in less eclectic cafes nearby.

The simple act of eating cha gio --Vietnamese egg rolls--for example, becomes a sensual experience at Song Long.

These peppery, bite-sized cylinders are one of the world's great snacks, densely packed with minced pork, crab, celery, carrot and clear noodles. Wrap them in little lettuce cocoons with the condiments served alongside--mint leaves, bean sprouts, ngo gai and aromatic parsley--then dip them in your dish of nuoc mam , sweet Vietnamese fish sauce. If you are not Vietnamese, incidentally, better ask for some of that sauce.

Come for breakfast and you can go the French route: great filter coffee, flaky croissants, homemade confiture and even pate chaud , an actual meat pie filled with pork, liver and onion that tastes exactly like one you would get in Paris. Everybody at virtually every hour of the day is drinking delicious filter coffee, the only requirement being a degree of patience. (This contraption, which sits on top of your coffee cup, takes forever to drip.) The good omelets have trilingual names. Ham omelet, on this menu, might be omelette au jambon or the more mysterious sounding trung ga chien voi jambon.

Lunch dishes are mostly Vietnamese, names representing entire recipes you come to crave quickly. Com bi cha suon nuong consists of a slightly sweet, slightly blackened charbroiled pork chop, a mound of cold, garlicky shredded pork and a kind of egg loaf, flanking a mountain of boiled rice and pickled carrot and radish. The wonderful com bat buu ga quay is a huge clump of tomatoey fried rice mingled with shrimp, peas and mushrooms, astride crisp oven-roasted chicken and a fried egg, sunnyside-up, of course.

A host of other Vietnamese specialties grace this large menu, mostly at bargain-basement prices. From 5 to 9 p.m. you can get things like "roast and roll" or "Saigon delight," two of the most popular dishes Song Long serves.

The first, known in Vietnamese as nen nuong , is crunchy balls of roasted minced pork, which you wrap individually in rice flour crepes smeared with hot bean paste.

Saigon Delight is really chao tom , a kind of shrimp paste molded around sticks of sugar cane and charbroiled. The Vietnamese eat it with a spicy, aromatic peanut sauce overcome with ginger and anise. I eat it as often as I can.

The French cuisine here, well, let's call it eccentric. Beginnings like onion soup and escargots with garlic butter are pretty standard and quite fine, but things get dicey after that.

The classic canard a l'orange --orange duck--is more of a confit really, salty, preserved duck that is fall-off-the-bone tender. Too bad the duck is sticky-sweet with what tastes like the cafe's homemade marmalade and a touch bitter from telltale bits of orange peel.

Langouste Thermidor is a spinoff of that old-time Continental favorite, oven-baked lobster with cheese sauce and mushrooms.

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