Central Vietnam via Arlington (Song Huong)

6 Dec

Part-time grad students who work full-time know this story all too well.  I’m a commuter student.  I don’t like to spend time on campus if I can help it (especially since it’s quite a ways from where I live and work).  But this semester, due to software availability, I’ve spent almost every weekend cooped up in a overheated, cramped computer lab, sharing the same stagnant air as a dozen other grad students, some with questionable hygiene standards.  My only solace is lunch break, a late afternoon chance for Chowhoundish adventures and the only time on that day I will nourish myself with something other than caffeine.

South Arlington is home to a large Vietnamese population, so I was excited to try out Song Huong, FW Weekly staff’s 2006 pick for “Best Vietnamese.”  The restaurant is located in a tucked away spot in a typical south Arlington strip mall at the northwest corner of Collins and Pioneer Pkwy,  across the parking lot from Pho Vietnam 1000, a restaurant with more visable signage.

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As my meals during these “all day computer lab” stints are on odd hours, the dining room was completely empty at 2:30pm on this Saturday afternoon.

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Empty dining room does not mean empty restaurant for Song Huong.  The rear room, “separated” from the main dining room by an open doorway, hosts card and Vietnamese Mahjong tournaments on weekends.  Thus, even though there was no one my direct line of sight from a corner table except the waitress at the cashier’s register, the room was far from silent with jubilant declarations (or maybe they were disgruntled protests, ah the language barrier) coming from the busy tournament.

Without any advance research on this initial visit to Song Huong, I didn’t understand the significance of the secondary sign, “Vietnamese Hue Restaurant.”  I ordered my usual fare at any Vietnamese restaurant, bun thit nuong with cha gio (deep fried spring roll). 

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Bun thit nuong is vermicelli noodles served with char-grilled pork, crushed peanuts, fresh vegetables and herbs (sprouts, pickled carrots and radish, cucumber, lettuce, Thai basil, and mint), and a bowl of pungent chili infused fish sauce that’s used like salad dressing to tie the whole dish together.  Song Huong’s version didn’t come with the usual accompanying plate of sprouts, basil, and mint.  Instead, push aside some of the vermicelli and you’ll find a few sprigs of each at the bottom of the bowl.  The char-grilled pork was tender and well seasoned (though a little light on the portion, and that’s coming from someone who usually prefers more carbs and less meat) and the fish sauce tangy with a hint of heat.  All in all very standard fare, a solid bowl of bun thit nuong.

Feeling adventurous, I also ordered the Hue style sour pork patty for an appetizer (I figured the word Hue had some important meaning for the restaurant, just wasn’t sure what the significance was).

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Turns out, sour pork patty at Song Huong is just cha lua (also known as gio lua), Vietnamese ham/salami, made from minced pork, potato starch, and fish sauce.  The mixture is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed (hence the slight color variation towards the outer edge of the semicircular slices).  My adventurous attempt turned out no adventurous dish.  Cha lua is commonly available at any Asian market and is no foreigner to my tastebuds, having sampled the ham-like delicacy on several occasions growing up.  Song Huong’s version tasted no different than the rolls wrapped in aluminum foil from the the supermarket, and in fact, had basically the same shape and size.  Coincidence?

I returned to the computer lab anxious to do some research on Hue style cuisine (that is, after a few more hours of statistical analysis).  Hue, an ancient capital, is located in central Vietnam.  The heavily tropical-influenced Vietnamese cuisine that we are accustomed in the US is primarily southern Vietnamese cuisine.  Hue style, or central Vietnamese, cuisine can be generally divided into two categories, traditional Hue cuisine and Royal cuisine, with the latter characterized by lavish feasts of delicate small plates.  The former is more common everyday food, distinct from southern Vietnamese cuisine by its spicier nature.

Researching Hue style cuisine made me realize the dishes I sampled on my first visit to Song Huong are not the best representation of what this restaurant is about.  Although, I suspect being served cha lua when I ordered Hue style pork patty was a result of miscommunication with the waitress (who was not very fluent in English).  Nem chua, a pickled (sour) sausage made from fermented pork pounded with garlic and chilis that originated from Hanoi, seems to fit the description of Hue style sour pork patty better than cha lua did.  But I know what I was served was not nem chua for it was neither sour nor garlicky nor looked like this.  Maybe the menu description is not accurate and cha lua is what Song Huong meant to serve.  Maybe they ran out of nem chua and served me cha lua thinking I wouldn’t know the difference (and without later research, I would not have known).  Maybe Hue style sour pork patty is neither cha lua nor nem chua and I have misdiagnosed the entire situation.  If anyone is informed on this topic, and since I have been unsuccessful in Googling the subject, please educate me!

Cha lua versus nem chua aside, I revisited Song Huong again the following weekend, this time armed with a list of what Google search results tell me are typical Hue dishes.  The dining room was again almost empty on this Saturday afternoon (as I was once again looking for a brief respite from statistical modeling and programming around 2:30pm) , with one lone diner slurping a bowl of pho while watching TV.  The back room was again noisy with Vietnamese card and Mahjong players.  With no waitstaff in sight, I stood just inside the front door turning my head back and forth like a disco ball, trying to make my need for assistance obvious and looking quite the idiot while doing so.  A clearly irritated Asian woman emerged from the back room, and upon the realization that I couldn’t respond to her questions in Vietnamese, pointed me in the direction of the corner table (coincidentally the same table I sat at on the previous visit) and plopped down a menu.  I requested a glass of water and scanned the menu for any items that matched (or were close to) the words I had scribbled on my Hue cuisine “cheat sheet.” 

Not even a minute later, the irked waitress was back, loudly setting my water glass on the table. 

“What you want?”

“I need a few more minutes, please,” I pleaded while frantically playing the match game between the menu and my handwriting.

She seemed displeased at my response.  Hmm.  My standards for quality of service at these authentic type Asian places are usually low.  But even by those standards, we were off to a bad start at Song Huong this afternoon.  I quickly dismissed her foul attitude as a result of bad luck at the Mahjong table.  At the moment, I had more important things (like the menu) to analyze.

I started the meal with an appetizer of banh beo, a Hue specialty.

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Tiny steamed rice flour cakes topped with dried shrimp (both whole and powdered) and scallions served with a sauce of rice vinegar, fish sauce, and fresh jalapeno.  I struggled a little in un-sticking these little delightful morsels of wiggly rice flour from the saucer-like containers, but the intricate balance of the delicate rice flour with the savory flavors of the dried shrimps and tangy sauce was worth all the effort. 

Next up, a bowl of bun bo hue, or Hue style spicy beef noodle soup.  Song Huong offers this Hue specialty in a regular version and a special version.  I didn’t know what made the “special” version special as the ingredient list was in Vietnamese, but was feeling pretty brave and went for it.

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The broth of bun bo hue is made from stewing beef bones for an extended period of time, creating a more savory flavor (and richer texture) than the broth in regular pho.  The spiciness is mild, but the broth has a pleasantly strong flavor of lemongrass.  In addition to the thin slices of beef in the regular bun bo hue, the special version included slices of cha lua (consistent in flavor and texture as that I had on my previous visit), congealed pig’s blood, and these semi-transparent and hard (and I imagine chewey, though I did not brave a bite) pieces.  I tried asking the waitress what that last ingredient was, but she hurriedly responded something in broken English in an almost shouting manner (as if to dismiss the question as quickly as possible) that I couldn’t understand.  Even with a language barrier, I could tell she was in no mood to be bothered with my questions.  Well, my adventures have limits.  I don’t love the nasty bits as Anthony Bourdain does.  Maybe it was knuckles, or as one friend of Vietnamese heritage suggests, intestines, but I wasn’t about to find out.  It seems that skipping the “special” and sticking with the regular bun bo hue would have been more pleasant for me personally.

There it is, a brief exploration of Hue style cuisine at Song Huong, where they’re not afraid to give it to you as it should be.  Adventurous souls have been informed, a trek to Arlington can mean more than less-than-exciting professional baseball and unbearably long lines (and bratty kids!) at Six Flags.  It can be culinary journey to central Vietnam.  However, even though I normally don’t rank service as a high priority at these ethnic hole-in-the-strip-malls, I have to note that the service during my second visit was simply unacceptable.  Being rude to your costumers to the point where they feel unwelcome is just bad practice, even if I was there at an odd hour.  Service didn’t seem to be an issue on my first visit, so maybe it was just one bad situation. 

Song Huong serves up pretty decent Vietnamese cuisine, especially if you stick to the Hue specialties (but skip the special specialties if you’re not into the nasty bits).  I’ll leave the service issue at your own discretion.  It’s unlikely that this particular waitress will be in that bad of a mood everyday (if she works there everyday).  But for me personally, the one bad service experience will stick for a while.

Rating: 2 / 5

Song Huong
703 E. Pioneer Pkwy
Arlington, TX 76010

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8 Responses to “Central Vietnam via Arlington (Song Huong)”

  1. Tanya 12/06/2007 at 8:04 pm #

    Donna, you should’ve told me you were going to a Vietnamese restaurant! I could’ve told you a few things.

    1) First, the picture you have is “cha lua” not “nem chua”. Hopefully, that’s what you ordered. If you ordered “cha Hue”, they gave you the wrong one. “Cha Hue” is tubular and shaped like a hot dog. You’re right in that you can find cha lua in the refridgerated section of Asian resturants wrapped in foil. I would’ve described it as a pork patty (not sour..unless it’s gone bad). =S “Cha Hue” is a spicy pork patty, and “Nem Chua” is the sour fermented pork square/link that is pink and comes with a piece of garlic on top.

    2) If you ordered “Bun Thit Nuong” that doesn’t come with a side of sprouts, mint, and lime. The side of sprouts, mint and lime ONLY comes out with an order of “Pho”.

    3) It is also pretty standard protocol to seat yourself in Vietnamese restaurants. Then, they come to you with the menu. Sorry, if you had known this, it may have saved you some grief.

    4) Finally, “Bun Bo Hue” is one of my favorites! That is a specialty of the Hue region in Vietnam. The semi-transparent and hard item in the soup was tendon NOT intestines. I thought it was a rice porriage that you tried (which can have intestines), but seeing the picture makes me want some “Bun Bo Hue”. The regular kind wouldn’t have had the congealed pig’s blood, cha, or tendon.

    I hope that helps! I might suggest “Bun Suong” for you next time…it’s a vermicilli noodle soup with shrimp, pork, and shrimp balls. You put hoison sauce in it for added flavoring (if they don’t already put it on there for you). That’s my all time favorite!

  2. donnaaries 12/06/2007 at 9:03 pm #

    Thanks for confirming the cha lua situation. I just thought it was odd that it was named “sour pork patty” on the menu if they just meant cha lua.

    For me, the service issue really had nothing to do with the seating but the general tone of the waitress during my entire visit. She was obviously in a bad mood, and I pretty much got yelled at when I asked what was in the bun bo hue. It was somewhat of an extraordinary situation (I hope!), but it’s the kind of thing that makes me want to look elsewhere for a bowl of bun bo hue before I return to this restaurant.

    It was a fun adventure though! Minus the getting yelled at/bad service part. Next time you can go with me so you can translate and I don’t accidentally end up eating any “special” ingredients.

  3. luniz 12/07/2007 at 12:25 pm #

    tendon’s pretty good. intestine doesn’t do much for me. too bad it’s so far away otherwise i’d tell you to call me and i’ll come eat the weird stuff and tell you if it’s ok 😀

  4. guttural 12/07/2007 at 4:11 pm #

    Hey Donna, next time you get in this predicament at a Viet place, just call me on the mobile for some quick help LOL.

    Song Huong translates to “Perfume River”, “so^ng” is river, and “hu’o’ng” is fragrance or perfume. It’s the river that Hue was built along the banks. Next time you expect to see me, ask be to bring my pictures of the Hue from my spring 2007 trip.

    Bun Bo Hue is a classic dish, much better without all the added stuff (not needed). Classical versions might have pig trotters, sliced boiled pork belly, and sliced or shredded bamboo shoots added, but not congealed blood cake, cha of any type, or chitterlings.

    Despite all the comments, you should NOT have been yelled at in the restaurant. I never get yelled at in restaurants, whether I seat myself or not, because they know I wouldn’t accept that treatment. If they give you attitude, just give it right back. I know you can do it LOL.

  5. guttural 12/07/2007 at 4:24 pm #

    I forgot to mention, the little rice pancakes with dried ground shrimp that you had are called “Banh Beo”, “banh” being the generic term for anything cake-like (in this case, rice flour and water batter steamed until it jells into the sticky cake, which should have been brushed with some oil or scallion oil before plating or storing), and “be`o” meaning “water fern”. The traditional banh beo are considerably smaller than the photo shows–about 5cm in diameter, with a slightly concave center to hold the powdered shrimp, scallions, and fish sauce mix (added by the diner). They should be presented 12-15 on a plate, overlapping slightly, just as water fern leaves overlap each other on a pond surface.

    One other note of regional differences in term. “Gio lua” and “cha lua” (“lua” meaning silk, in this case connoting smooth texture of the paste from which the meat cakes are formed as well as the mouth feel on consumption) will *sometimes* refer to different meat cakes. Gio will always be steamed. Cha, especially according to the “official” northern term, means fried.

  6. guttural 12/07/2007 at 4:26 pm #

    One more note…in replying to your article I thought of the pan used to make banh beo..I think it might suffice for your making takoyaki!!!

  7. donnaaries 12/08/2007 at 9:51 am #

    Thanks both Tanya and guttural for the information! I’m just starting to learn about Vietnamese cuisine so the bits you’re providing are very helpful 🙂

  8. guttural 04/21/2008 at 4:45 pm #

    I was in the neighborhood of Song Huong so I plopped in for lunch, around 1:30 in the afternoon. I got, presumably, the same seemingly permanently irritated waitress as Donna got, who seemed wide-eyed surprised by my passable Vietnamese language skills. i ordered a litany of items, from nem chua (bland and mushy, timid on the garlic) to tre (not properly tightly packed and not flavorful) to banh beo (mushy and not proper form; mine had been cut from a long rectangular piece) to banh bot loc (texture was ok–not great–but not translucent and didn’t hold its shrimp piece filling well) to Bun Bo Hue. None of it was as good as I had hoped. I probably will not be back.

    The framed embroidery on the walls are beautiful, though.
    Reminds me of Hue very much.

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