Such was the case a few months back, when someone contacted me to rave about Son's Bakery Café. The person gushed about Son, talking about how this Vietnamese immigrant and former chef at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch had created a gem of a café, and that he served the best cheesesteak in town. I thanked the person for the information, forwarded it to Noshing Around goddess Karyn Zoldan, and filed it away for a possible review down the line.
Enter my skepticism: How phenomenal would a restaurant have to be for you to feel the urge to contact your local newspaper editor if you didn't have an ulterior motive?
Well, after going to check the place out, I can honestly say that I have no doubt that the tip indeed came from a Son's customer motivated by the restaurant's wonderfulness. Son's is indeed a treasure.
I visited Son's during a recent weekday lunch hour for the first time. Hugh Dougherty accompanied me. At first glance, Son's is underwhelming, residing between a Big 5 and a Grocery Outlet in a Speedway Boulevard shopping center. Inside, it looks like a typical small-business deli, with the requisite fluorescent lighting. The furniture's euphemistically vintage (and the chairs at two back tables don't match the rest), and art--a LOT of art--from local artists, and some fake plants, clutter one cream-colored, sheet-rock wall. Each table features the goofiest placemats, with a depiction of an overweight Italian chef. Homey and charming, in a cheap sort of way.
When you get to the counter to order, that's when it starts to dawn on you that this is NOT a typical small-business deli. First, the prices are phenomenal--sandwiches start at $3.49 and top out, with one exception, south of $5. They come on your choice of nine types of bread, all made in-house by Son and also for sale by the loaf ($2.75). For a buck extra, you can get a side of pasta, potato or green salad, or chips. Salads ($3.49 for 8 ounces, $4.99 for 12 or $6.49 for a pound) are also offered, along with soups, coffee and other items. Finally, Son's offers a large selection of cakes, desserts and pastries, almost all of which cost less than $3--much less in many cases.
Then there's the service: Son is an absolute whirlwind of working, chatting and serving. He and his small staff clearly believe in what they're doing, and they want every customer to feel at home. You aren't supposed to pay until AFTER your meal, and Son will demand to know what you thought of your meal before you pay.
After scanning the menu, I decided to try half of a roast beef sandwich ($3.49), along with a small chicken Caesar salad ($3.49). Hugh picked the hot cheesesteak combo ($6.49), which included a soda and a side; Hugh chose the potato salad. We also decided to split an order of crab puffs (normally 10 for $2.50, on special for $1.99).
We sat at one of the rear tables and waited for our meal. One of Son's assistants--who mentioned in passing to another customer that she wasn't supposed to be working, but merely dropped in for a sandwich when she saw Son's had been swamped by a last-minute, 30-sandwich order--came out to ask some follow-up order questions. She apologized profusely for the not-so-long wait, and was soon followed by Son, who also apologized. Shortly after that, they brought our food.
The half-sandwich was mostly typical--good roast beef with all the regulars--but what made it stand out was the fresh, homemade sourdough bread. The sourdough flavor was light, but the bread was otherwise impeccable. My chicken Caesar, with all the regular accompaniments, was perfect, and the crab puffs were a tasty treat--and one helluva deal at the price.
Hugh, meanwhile, was luxuriating with his sandwich. Remember that the tipster from a few months back told us this was the best cheesesteak in town; well, it's certainly delicious and unique. Hugh did some investigation and found out that Son cooks the beef in a wok-like dish in a secret sauce with a distinctly Asian flare, giving the beef a sweet, almost teriyaki-like flavor. Mixed with the cheese, grilled onions and peppers, and then put on fresh bread, it's a wonderful sandwich.
After paying the bill and saying our good-byes to Son, we decided to return to sample the breakfasts (served from 7-11 a.m. every day but Sunday, when service starts at 8 a.m.), pastries and the Vietnamese beef soup, which is offered only on Saturdays. Thus, we returned, along with friend Rachid, the following Saturday. Rachid and I had breakfast; all of Son's regular breakfasts are $3.49 and come with two eggs, home fries, toast and either two slices of bacon, a sausage or ham, along with something else. I chose the traditional breakfast--in which case the sausage or bacon AND ham is offered--while Rachid went for the French breakfast, which comes with French toast. Meanwhile, Hugh got the soup ($3.49 large, $5.49 giant), which Son--during one of his table visits--said takes about seven to eight hours to prepare.
The food, again, was all stellar. The breakfasts were pretty normal--there isn't much to potatoes, eggs and breakfast meats--except for the homemade bread (my toast and Rachid's French toast), which elevated things: Son makes some amazing bread. He also makes some amazing soup, as Hugh loved the beef soup, which came with rice noodles, bean sprouts, cilantro and basil. It had a great flavor, with the beef and cilantro carrying the taste. It was a winner.
Before we left, we all got a dessert: Rachid got a brownie ($1.25), Hugh a chocolate mound ($1.50), and I a raisin cinnamon roll ($1.10). My cinnamon roll was good, but it paled in comparison to Rachid's and Hugh's desserts. Rachid--a very picky eater--called the brownie one of the best he'd ever had, with its almost cake-like quality, and Hugh's dessert--with a cake base, a mousse middle and a dried-chocolate-sauce topping--was decadent. And a phenomenal deal at $1.50.
How Son does this all himself is beyond me. But however he does it, the end result is a gem of a café/deli. It's such a gem, that it's worth writing your local paper about.