Song Que undoubtedly is the Vietnamese princess of Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, the little Vietnam of London. Always packed with a hungry crowd, it can happen, especially at peak times such as on Friday or Saturday evening, that you have to queue for a substantial amount of time before you can even try and sample some of the most authentic, delicious and cheap Vietnamese food in London.
On the other hand, you definitely would not go to Song Que for atmosphere or service. The dining room is reminiscent of a canteen with a distinct communist touch: there are large communal tables and the lighting is much too bright. The service is rude to say the very least and they really don’t want you to linger on after you have finished eating.
…keep away from Chinese style stir fries… opt for typical Vietnamese.
The food, however, is worth these small inconveniences, and savouring it takes me straight back to the food stalls in Saigon, where I had some of the tastiest food of my life for ridiculously low prices. What I particularly like about Vietnamese cuisine, apart from it being very healthy, is its freshness and its abundance of clean flavours which derives from fresh herbs such as Vietnamese mint, coriander, Thai basil and lemongrass as well as the distinct taste of Vietnamese fish sauce. So keep away from Chinese style stir fries which are usually rather disappointing and opt for typical Vietnamese.
The Fresh summer Rolls with Prawns are utterly divine. They are packed with the delicious fresh flavour of Vietnamese mint, prawns and rice vermicelli rolled in rice paper. The Rolls are eaten dipped into a lovely Vietnamese peanut sauce which definitely has some heat to it. If you have tasted these you will never go back to the fried Chinese alternative.
Coming in at a close second is the Papaya Salad (Gỏi đu đủ). The grated green papaya is fresh and crunchy and comes immersed in a deliciously tangy sauce, topped with crushed peanuts, fresh chilli and prawns. Ignore the pale and tasteless pieces of pork: it’s best to hide them under the prawn crackers.
If you’re looking for something hot to start with, I truly recommend the Minced Beef wrapped in Betel Leaves (Bò lá lốt): The betel leaves that release their distinct, sweetly-spicy flavour upon heating are filled with juicy and fragrantly seasoned grilled beef which is served together with fish sauce (Nước chấm) rice vermicelli and fresh Vietnamese mint.
Song Que’s noodles are the absolute highlight. One of the simplest but at the same time most delightful and flavoursome dishes is the Bún chả. A bowl of rice vermicelli comes topped with lemongrass, Vietnamese fish sauce, fresh Thai basil, prawn or chicken, fresh chilli, bean sprouts and peanuts. Mix it all together and you will appreciate that you have ordered condensed bliss on a plate as this dish is packed full of fresh, exotic and summery flavours.
If you’re coming along from a hangover or a broken heart, however the cure is the chicken Pho. A large bowl filled with delicious chicken soup with the subtle flavour of cinnamon and other oriental spices and herbs comes with cooked chicken, bean sprouts, fresh Thai basil, lime and fresh chilli. You can also order the soup with beef or seafood, and there is also a spicy variant.
If you stick to tap water you can have a healthy, filling and delectable meal at Song Que for less than £20. Having said this, their cheapest bottle of wine is only £11, which isn’t too bad an alternative… Other cheap and cheerful Vietnamese restaurants I recommend are Cay Tre in Hoxton which is slightly more expensive than Song Que, but has a very interesting menu and is slightly more stylish, and Caphe House in Bermondsey Street: a specialist in delicious Vietnamese coffee, Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguettes) and chilled atmosphere.