Despite being surrounded by Vietnamese eateries, the multiple award-winning Song Que is probably the most successful Vietnamese restaurant in London. Yet it remains very down to earth. Its owners, Luoc and Anh, tell their story. Photo by Nick Ross
When did you arrive in the UK?
Luoc: A long time ago. I arrived in 1979. I come from Saigon.
Anh: I came in 1989. We didn’t know each other before I arrived. We met in the UK. I come from Ben Tre.
What did you do before you opened Song Que?
Luoc: When I first arrived, my English wasn’t good. So I ended up washing dishes. But after a few years I knew I had to move forward, so I started learning English. Once I had a better grasp of it, I got work as a waiter for a Singaporean restaurant.
Why did you decide to go into the restaurant business?
Anh: We wanted to do something for our family and also to do something for the Vietnamese community. We were focused on having Vietnamese customers, not on foreigners. But once we opened, all sorts of people came to try out the food.
How did you get yourself such a good name?
Three months after we opened — without us knowing — a magazine wrote an article on us. Prior to the piece, the restaurant was really quiet, but suddenly, one Tuesday, loads of people phoned up to reserve a table. We didn’t understand — at the time we only had one person working the floor and three people in the kitchen. That day it was raining, and suddenly there was a long queue outside the restaurant. This was 2003. We realised that our service wasn’t up to scratch and that the food was coming out of the kitchen really slowly, but the customers were really understanding. After they ate that night, they started chatting to us, and it was only then that we realised we’d been written about in a magazine — it was Time Out London.
What happened after the article?
Anh: Loads of people came to the restaurant to interview us, and then nine months later we won the Time Out award for Best Cheap Eats in London, 2003. We were so surprised and never imagined in our wildest dreams that we’d get such an award.
When you make your food, do you adapt it to the taste of people in the UK?
We cook it as if we are cooking for Vietnamese people. From when we first opened, we have never changed this. Our food is exactly what you’d get in Vietnam.
How do you manage to attract all the customers?
Anh: We’re just lucky. But we’re like a tree. If you look after a tree, water it, treat it well, you’ll get fruit. That’s how we see it.
In the past, people from the UK didn’t know that much about Vietnamese food. How did you deal with this?
Anh: It was so difficult. So for example, bun. People didn’t understand. They said, ‘But the noodles are cold. How can we eat them?’ They would complain. Someone else said that eating our bi cuon, rice paper rolls, were like eating rubber bands. But now, we sell bi cuon a lot.
You also sell a few dishes that are not Vietnamese, like for example, crispy duck. Why is this?
Anh: When we opened, not so many people were able to eat Vietnamese cuisine. So, we added in a few Chinese dishes like the crispy duck. But now, because it’s so popular, we can’t take it off the menu
How do you manage to maintain such consistency?
Anh: I marinate all the meat and fish myself. I also make all the sauces. I don’t let anyone else do it, even the head chef. I’m starting to show my oldest daughter, but otherwise, I do all of this myself.