In London, there is a branch of the Overground, that orange line that girds the city’s suburban regions, which goes from West Croydon up to Dalston Junction, which was completed and opened while I was living in Brockley. Oh how we rejoiced, my flatmates and I; how we lovingly dubbed it Song Que Express, the leisurely direct ride to that pistachio-coloured, perpetually packed palace of pho, a crown jewel (emerald, probably) in Kingsland Road’s Pho Mile.
Things got even better when I found Cafe East along the same line, set in the beautiful, desolate post-industrial landscape of Surrey Quays, its interior even sparser than Song Que, its menu vastly shorter, distilled into a series of classic dishes. I held a birthday celebration there once, trekking through ankle-deep snow with friends for the privilege of an hour-long queue among half-starved Vietnamese students. I had panicked binges every time the family running the joint announced one of their month-long breaks to go back to the homeland. I have sometimes been their first customer of the day, sitting by myself in a corner with their pho kho dac biet cay (spicy mixed dry pho, soup on the side) and banh cuon, the rice sheets somehow both slippery and sticky.
So all in all, you could probably say I rather enjoy Vietnamese food. And also that I’m quite a sad person. Back in Singapore, it was a fellow addict – one of the flatmates mentioned above, actually – who first introduced me to Long Phung some time ago; but without anything like a Long Phung Express, I have instead been stumbling around shopping malls, bouncing from one punnily-named chain to another, looking for a more convenient, equally satisfying fix.
Well, serves me right for my sloth. The place is utilitarian, whirring fans and plastic chairs, and with the rich and herbal aromas hanging about the tables as if they were part of the decor, it feels like – heck, it pretty much is – that place where I’ve spent many an afternoon pretending to be productive. Even before the bowl gets to my table I’m already unwittingly smiling.
Pho soup is a strange, brilliant thing when done right – always underseasoned, so you have the option to build on it how you like (I prefer basil, lemon and chilli padi); yet broadly, subtly flavoured with beef bones and spices. It’s like a deep, complex bass line, a canvas coated with a dark colour before painting a night scene – sure, you can lay on all the hooks and brush strokes and improvisations, but the base is also what makes it beautiful.
So it is with Long Phung’s pho dac biet, with raw slices, slabs of stewed flank, little hand-formed meatballs and a raw egg floating in the broth. The flavour is beefy, the warm scent of cloves and star anise lurking in the background, so every sip is a deep mix of flavours. The meatballs, small and firm and bouncy, have a texture that store-bought meatballs just can’t match; the stewed flank is a little understewed for my taste, the tendons still crunchy. But the broth! I’m still thinking of it now.
Cha gio, another ubiquitous Vietnamese dish, has me at the first glance – the rice paper skin crisp and slightly charred without being greasy. And inside the delicate package, more broad sweeps of flavour and texture, strips of wood fungus and bits of cellophane noodles nestled in with the densely packed minced pork. Again, there’s depth here, this time of pepper and fish sauce, that I haven’t had from any mall-based Vietnamese chain. Garnish is also thoughtful – the mandatory nuoc cham, tangy and savoury, and also basil leaves for a much needed lightness.
The only thing that spoils the illusion somewhat is an order of sam bo loung, a drink/dessert. Cafe East had taught me that it was basically the Vietnamese answer to cheng tng, a tea-coloured cold drink boosted with dried longan and a little orange peel, sago bits swirling about inside like a snowball fight. What comes to me instead is little bits of ice slowly melting into a fruit cocktail syrup, with shrivelled grapes and bits of pineapple.
But that’s a minor issue in an experience that generally made me go all misty from nostalgia, not to mention the pho vapours and the great food. Oh, Long Phung, where have you been all this while? I’ve been going around slurping one-note pho broths, where the flavour starts and ends at savoury; I’ve been bemoaning the lack of a good lemongrass pork chop, so fragrant you can smell it half the restaurant away. Then again, you’ve always been here, so what have I been doing all this while? I’ve been a damn fool, is what. I should always have been taking the trouble to come here.
Long Phung Vietnamese Restaurant
159 Joo Chiat Road
Open 1pm – 2am daily