There's something about sadness that inspires a hearty appetite. My favorite literary example of this is when a well-meaning woman asked legendary writer Dorothy Parker if there was anything she could do after hearing that Parker's husband had died. "Get me a new husband," Parker said. When the well-meaning woman chided her for being rude, the quick-witted Parker answered, "I'm sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye."
I needed something a little more exotic after crying through that so-called comedy, so I met my friends Bob, Patrick and Gary at the two-month-old Café Song in Shawnee. My heart sank when we walked in the door and saw that the place looked like one of those order-at-the-counter joints. This self-service trend in casual dining is really getting on my last nerve; if I'm going out to eat, I want to be served, damn it.
Luckily, the order-at-the-counter concept had been tried but quickly discarded by Café Song's owners, Van — pronounced Von — and Roderick Divilbiss. "The idea was that during the lunch business, people could go up to the counter and pick out a spring roll or a banh mi sandwich and it would be fast," Roderick told me later. "But our customers didn't like it, so we hired servers."
There's an even longer story about how petite Van — a native of Vietnam who initially met her husband, Roderick, on the Internet — got up on ladders to sand away and spackle over any lingering vestiges of this venue's previous tenant, a sports bar called Tailgators Grill. The place had been pretty much gutted when the Divilbisses leased it, so they turned the space into a bright, shiny dining room decorated with striking photos of Vietnam — including Van and Roderick's wedding photo.
The very tall Roderick was our server on that post-movie night, when our quartet ordered a couple of interesting-sounding starters. Tom chien is a fried shrimp dish often made with batter-dipped prawns; here, the small crustaceans are butterflied, dipped in panko bread crumbs and lightly fried so they disappear in one crunchy bite. The cha gio, or "imperial rolls," sound better than they are: fried cylinders of crispy rice paper wrapped around ground pork, shrimp, mushrooms and taro. They look like heat-and-serve taquitos and aren't much to remember, tastewise.
But that was the only clunker of the night. Our meals were exceptional, beginning with Patrick's excellent pan-seared tilapia smothered in sautéed tomatoes and fresh basil. "It's very simple but delicious," he said. He added that he was impressed by the visual presentation of all the dishes.
Gary's hefty bowl of stir-fried egg noodles, mi chien, was a colorful mix of green basil; red peppers; pink shrimp; and bits of pork, beef and chicken. It was modestly seasoned (another server told me that most locals prefer their Vietnamese fare on the mild side), so Gary took advantage of the bottle of chili sauce on our table, squeezing a few tablespoons over the noodles. "I like things hot," he said.
Meat-and-potatoes-loving Bob thought about ordering one of the banh mi baguette sandwiches — Café Song is one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in town offering these French-Vietnamese delicacies — when he saw that the menu listed a hamburger version alongside the more exotic fillings. But Roderick convinced him to sample the oven-baked baby-back pork ribs, which are one of Van's specialties. These meaty ribs are thickly glazed with dense, sweet hoisen sauce, and they were pretty damn good. Bob wasn't so keen on them, though, because the meat wasn't falling off the bone, which is his standard for perfect pork ribs.
I don't have a standard for the perfect pho, the noodle soup that's eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Vietnam. Though Café Song's isn't the finest I've had, my pho bo was a comforting bowl of rice noodles in a flavorful beef broth with paper-thin slices of beef and tiny meatballs. Like Gary, I like a spicier pho, so I tricked it out with a squeeze of fresh lime, a splash of amber-colored fish sauce and a tiny bit of chili sauce.
We had only a couple of dessert options: ice cream or something called coconut tiramisu. Patrick and I were intrigued by what an Asian version of the Italian dessert might be, so we each ordered one. The pastry looked like a slab of Mexican tres leches cake, with one exception: It was so liberally soaked with coconut-flavored rum that I was exhaling potentially flammable fumes after one bite (which, as a nondrinker, was all I could handle). After several bites, Patrick was downright woozy. "I love this place," he gushed. He loved the tiramisu, anyway.
I wasn't nearly so weepy or woozy when I returned to Café Song with my friend Billy, a graphic designer who said he liked the simple, unfussy décor. But simple is an understatement — there's no décor, unless you count the framed photographs, which are beautiful. So once again, the aesthetics were all in the visually sumptuous food. Our plump spring rolls were practically bursting at the seams with shrimp, and the papaya salad was a heap of tart green papaya slivers lightly tossed in "Vietnamese vinaigrette" (noac mam and vinegar, I think).
Even though I wasn't particularly sad that night, I ordered the most universal comfort food on the menu. Chao ga, according to its description, is "every Vietnamese mother's special soup." The thick chicken-and-rice brew, with bits of carrots, mushrooms and green onions, wasn't too different from my grandmother's chicken-and-rice soup, but it was a lot tastier.
That night, I also ordered a simple fried-rice dish: a deliciously light, unsalty rice, intensely flavored with fresh basil and dotted with green peas and mushrooms. The meal was amazingly inexpensive and satisfying.
Billy is a much more languid eater than I am, so while he slowly sipped his soup, I ordered an extra order of spring rolls as my dessert, swirling them through a dollop of rich, sweet peanut sauce. It made a less intoxicating finale than the coconut tiramisu, but in my book, that's nothing to cry about.