Suspicion always lead me to avoid entering this restaurant when I lived around the corner. Peering in to see clueless tourists panic-stricken flipping through a menu of foreign delights, with a waiter patiently explaining to them the concept of fish sauce, lime, lemongrass, herbs as they communicated in foreign tongues asking each other what the safest option would be.
I did venture in once some years back, to order take-away, and sat outside on the front step in blistering heat to avoid the mumblings and blank stares of fellow countrymen. The food tasted great, so I wanted to do the right thing and return there one day to try it fresh out the kitchen, served on plates, in situ.
Coinciding with a friend visiting, it was decided to try a large spread that can be justified when there are more than one person dining but treated suspiciously if solo. We took our seats at off-peak times to avoid other tourists, and ordered five dishes and sat beseeching the air conditioner to work over-time.
Served in the order they were prepared in, within minutes the small table was scattered with the fruits of the chefs labor. We piled our small plates high with aromatic caramelized pork, tangy mango salad with shrimps, crunchy garlic fried rice, fried chicken and plump shrimp spring rolls.
Every dish had it's merits, but the glory was stolen by the mango salad and the fried rice. The other dishes were definitely above average, but exactly those two would be ordered again in a heartbeat. The service was refreshingly muted, coming to the table to fill water glasses but not fussing around with napkins or persistently asking for more orders. Service with a smile, respected personal space = big tick in my books.
If I learnt anything by finally dining in at Den Long, it was that despite my mature age, I still have a plethora of stereotypes and assumptions gurgling in the pit of my stomach, and I need to do better at ignoring my predjudices and take things for what they are. Sure, Den Long may be the landing spot for petrified tourists on their first rendezvous in Vietnam, but they should at least be lauded for not choosing McDonalds or Burger King, and actually being introduced to authentic (and damn tasty) local cuisine.
These recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.
"Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored by the ladling of glistening, fatty broth"